It was 2011, I was living with my husband in Hong Kong, and I had planned a surprise date night at a swanky dinner spot. We got all dressed up and arrived to find out that it was “models’ night”. I’m 5’3” (on a good day!), and at then-29 years old I was at least half a foot shorter and a decade older than most of these women. I would have imagined that I’d feel intimidated and unhappy having dinner in these surrounds, but I was primarily saddened by what I saw. The models seemed very…young. And rather inexperienced in the ways of the world. I felt like a protective older sister or even an aunt when I looked around and saw these Eastern European teenagers enjoying their complimentary food right before the older businessmen arrived to prey, victims of a broken system that often does them more harm than good. The calm before the storm.
My maternal feelings towards these women were not misplaced, as these young girls usually start their careers between ages 13 and 16 are often bullied, harassed, and abused. This piece by my friend and Model Alliance Founder Sara Ziff provides an excellent overview of how the vulnerabilities of models are exploited and the need for greater workplace protections. Models also often suffer from eating disorders at alarming rates, and this piece in the Guardian by a former Vogue editor highlights the extreme level of food deprivation many models are pressured to undertake. And models who can’t reach the ultra-thin industry standards may have pressure of another kind, to bulk up to be “plus-sized” even if that’s not their natural build.
This is to say nothing about the societal toll of showcasing primarily young, tall, white women in oversexed poses with often vapid expressions and airbrushing as “the standard of beauty”. This impacts each of us, and particularly young girls.
It’s a system that likely everyone reading this finds highly problematic. So why do we have the current status quo? Well, there’s of course patriarchy at play, but there are also a few more practical “justifications” for some of the “standards”:
The consumer eye: Clothing tends to fall better on a slimmer, taller frame. Brands need to have imagery that will actually sell products in an increasingly competitive landscape, and tall and trim sells the best. Check out this telling post from my friend Sica Schmitz on how consumers prefer to purchase clothing shown on a tall, young, white, thin model.
Runway shows: There is a standard “sample size” that is often used on runways, as during shows models quickly transition out of pieces and wear many over the evening. It would be more organizationally complex and be pricier (yet certainly still possible!) to have a wider range of sizes of clothing present and more diverse models on the runway.
Fittings: Fit models are used to develop each piece of clothing before it goes to market. It takes more time and money to fit clothing on a wider range of people and to do extensive fittings across all sizes. I strongly believe that brands should use fit models that resemble women across a range of builds, which is why women find that clothing often doesn’t speak to their curves, but many brands cut corners here.
Sales photoshoots: Once again, time and money come into play. Many products go through multiple fittings first which can cause delays and brands are often cutting it close with getting the shoot done in time for that season. It would take much longer, and be far more expensive, to have more sizes available and more models across those sizes at each shoot.
So there you have it. A status quo that works for no one. Models are mistreated, images are unrealistic and harmful to our society, and we are all worse off. But what can we each do to change this?
When I started Maven Women I didn’t think that choices around models would be such a part of our brand, but they have been one our most important components. Here are just some of the ways we have done things differently:
Our fashion illustrations: Design school students are taught to draw ultra thin, tall sketches of models. Check out this article on how to do so and note that NO ONE actually looks like these alien mannequins, yet this is how fashion sketches usually look. I think this is part of why we find such tall, overly skinny women “the most attractive”. We used an actual, healthy, 33-year-old woman to create the build for our fashion sketches and had them evaluated by Christie Dondero Bettwy, who works in eating disorder recovery.
Our fittings: Many brands use just one fit model and then scale that size up and down. We used over 30 models to create The Sarah and The Amira, from tall to short to well-endowed to pear-shaped. We are thrilled to have created clothing that many women tell us is their best-fitting, most flattering yet! It took many of our resources to do so as a young brand, but we wanted to do it right.
Our model selection: All of the models currently on our website are age 30+ and live our values in amazing ways. None of them are professional models. We may make that choice in the future, and we love how Sica Schmitz has styled incredible women who live our values like Nyadhour and Rachel Ford in Maven Women.
Our posing: No vapid, vacant stares there! We have women stand strong and showcase their authentic experiences, like when doctor Julie breastfed her daughter during our photoshoot.
Our photo editing: We will edit the blemish, dust speck, or flyaways, but not the shape of the body. Nope, never.
We would love to have our fashion illustrations and models be in even more sizes, and if we are able to grow we will have the revenue to do even more.
I end by asking you to support companies who actually care about their models and how they depict women. If you do purchase clothing over the holidays aim to look not just at the clothes but the models themselves. Is this a brand making thoughtful choices around how women are depicted? The industry will follow the dollars, and yours matter.
Phales Milimo is modeling The Sarah, which like all of our dresses is named after an inspiring woman who shares our values. Phales works in the area of Disability Rights and Social Inclusion at World Vision in her native Zambia and she is an Atlas Corps Fellow.
Tracy Williams is modeling The Karyn. Tracy works at The Omidyar Network, which harnesses the power of the market to help people improve their lives, in the area of Intellectual Capital.
Alicia Satterwhite Simmen is modeling The Elizabeth. She is a leader in the heavily male-dominated construction industry and a multiple-year recipient of the Parade of Homes Gold Award.
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