Saturday, May 1, 2010

Fashion, models and a duty of care.

I've been thinking about models lately. More specifically, the situation of models in the fashion industry and how sometimes they may fall through the cracks. Let me say from the outset that I am nervous about posting this, and have been hesitating about writing this down because I do not work within the industry and the only modeling I have done is so peripheral to what professional models do it can hardly be classed as the same thing. I feel like I don't have a right to make a comment- but outsiders can have a perspective too, and maybe if you have a different opinion you might respond and we can get a dialogue going.

November 2009: I bought the new RUSSH, stoked to see Daul Kim on the cover- a gorgeous Korean model looking calm, purposeful and powerful. Yet reading her accompanying Model Profile, I felt deeply uncomfortable. The questions were brief and relatively generic and for the most part, her answers were fairly typical- example: "what beauty products are must-haves and why?"/ "I always have good make-up removers. . ." So far, so familiar.

And yet here and there appeared answers that were blunt, unconventional, so starkly honest that I tried to read between the type to figure out if she was being ironic.

Any special purchases recently? I just bought an Isabel Marant wolf coat. I'm usually very miserable, so I reward myself with a fur coat every year.

If you weren't modelling, where would you like to be? I would like to be in a happy place.

So, what next? What are you excited about? I want happiness.

20 November, mere weeks after these answers were published, Daul Kim committed suicide. She kept a blog too, I Like to Fork Myself, on which she wrote about the pressures of being a model- writing on October 30, “mad depressed and overworked, the more I gain the more lonely it is. I know I’m like a ghost.”

The fashion industry frequently gets attacked for its portrayal of women and its rigorous demand for thinness in models, and I am not going to jump on an easy bandwagon and lambast Fashion for destroying Daul Kim. That would be simplistic and utterly ignorant of me- who knows what was she was struggling with in her work, heart and mind? However, if I as a young outsider living in Sydney, Australia, was able to recognise that Kim seemed to be struggling emotionally, surely those working around her were able to see it too? And what did they do about it? I suppose what I'm asking is, what is the fashion industry's duty of care to the young women it employs and how is it responding to the needs that they may have arising from working in such a frenetic and demanding industry?

I know that measures have been taken lately by the CFDA to combat eating disorders amongst models in fashion, and that it has instigated a rule that catwalk models must be 16 years old to work- which is a fantastic start! Vogue editors Alexandra Shulman (UK), Anna Wintour (US, obvz) and Kirstie Clements (Australia) have all put the age and required weight of models on the agenda in an attempt to regulate the practice. (The complexities that arise from Vogue being a forum to discuss an issue like this is interestingly discussed on Jezebel here.)

But what else? Perhaps talking about a concern for young women that model is disempowering in a way, as if they need my protection. But my concern is not that they're girls, ergo they need protecting. My concern is that many of them are teenagers, an acknowledged time of change and uncertainty at the best of times, and the stability that may be provided by the routine of living in one place, going to one school, being surrounded by a network of friends and/or family is removed. Models travel a lot, often live in apartments full of other models who may or may not speak a common language, and work extremely long hours, often with a team of people they don't know who are also often older than them. Furthermore, the currency that they're trading in is the very site of deep uncertainty for young people- their embodied selves.

If models do struggle with issues that are common to teenage girls- uncertainty about their body and attractiveness, being self-conscious, feeling isolated and moody, trying to figure out how they fit in (or don't) socially- who are they going to talk to? I'm sure that for many models it's a very exciting experience, along with everything else, and I'm also sure that not every model has a need for a similar level of care. But last week I went back to that issue of RUSSH (I have avoided it since reading about Daul Kim's death) and was again struck by her obvious unhappiness and I felt deeply sad. Her depression, if I can take a liberty and call it that, is bold in black and white. Such a public admission demands a response, and I haven't been able to find one from the industry, despite searching online. And I'm just wondering what response RUSSH had when they received her responses, if any- and what might be done in the future to offer assistance to young women in a similar state of mind.

NB: I'm aware that Daul Kim was not a teen when she died- she was 22. However, she was 'discovered' when she was 13 and left school to model full-time when she was 16.

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