Liposuction, eating disorders and sexual coercion: High fashion's ugly secrets

Sara Ziff was once the face of Tommy Hilfiger and Banana Republic. Now she tells Salon the hidden truth of modeling

Published February 13, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

Sara Ziff        (Jeff Tse)
Sara Ziff (Jeff Tse)

“We’re working in an industry that is perceived as frivolous, and so our concerns are not taken seriously,” says model Sara Ziff, who’s been the face of Tommy Hilfiger and Banana Republic and walked the runway for Calvin Klein and Chanel. A model since age 14, Ziff exposed ugly industry stories in her 2009 documentary "Picture Me," then founded the non-union workers’ group Model Alliance two years ago this month. In a fashion week interview with Salon, Ziff described largely unseen sexual coercion, wage theft and eating disorders; discussed her efforts (in a personal capacity) to foster solidarity between U.S. fashion models and Bangladesh garment workers; and considered what clout her group can bring to bear on the trillion-dollar industry. A condensed version of our conversation follows.

How different is the fashion industry from what most people imagine in the U.S.?

The modeling industry seems very glamorous, and part of a model’s job is to make the work invisible. It’s to make, you know, being beautiful and glamorous seem effortless.

And so it’s not surprising that most people would have trouble seeing modeling as a job, and that the issues like difficulty in some cases getting paid for your work, long working hours, sexual harassment on the job -- those are things that are hidden from view. And so I think often people are unsympathetic to models’ concerns because the very nature of the job is to exude sort of effortless beauty and glamour.

In your time modeling and in your time organizing models, what are the most widespread or the most serious abuses that you come across?

Probably the issue that I have worked hardest to address, that’s most personal to me, is the child labor issue …

Often teenage girls who are 14, 15, 16, are cast to model clothing that’s marketed to women … They haven’t really developed hips or breasts …

They’re valued for that sort of androgynous, tall, skinny look. And so they’re often, you know, working in an adult environment, with adult pressures that they don’t have the maturity to handle. And they’re also pressured to maintain that physique, which in most cases is almost impossible -- because, of course, you know as you get older your body changes. And so there’s a huge amount of pressure on girls to essentially prevent their bodies from developing …

The criticism that the fashion industry promotes an unhealthy ideal, and that models are extremely thin, you know, is legitimate. But what most people probably don’t realize is that that body type is really based on casting girls instead of women. And so there’s a labor dimension to that, that I think people are oblivious to.

We championed this bill that we introduced last year, and Gov. Cuomo signed into law in October, that basically gives fashion models who are underage teens the same protections as other child performers in New York …

This is the first fashion week that this [law] is in place: you know, maximum working hours, provisions for chaperones, trust accounts and so on. Models have to have work permits now, and their employers have to have a certificate of eligibility to engage them. So there’s enough paperwork, and it’s enough of a hassle, that I think what we’re seeing this fashion week is that designers are essentially casting women … 18 and up, to model their clothes … Ultimately that’s better for the models, who are then, you know, able to at least finish high school before they embark on their careers. And it also, I think, presents a more realistic image of women to consumers.

When you say pressure to stop their bodies from changing, what does that consist of?

At 14, your body is still developing … You haven’t filled out …  A lot of models who I’ve spoken with -- and I wouldn’t say this is true across the board -- but they develop eating disorders. Or … as they get older, and they look back on their careers, they realize … they were dieting and exercising excessively. And you know, I’ve spoken with models who don’t get their period anymore, because they put their bodies through so much to try to stay thin …

There’s just this sort of constant pressure to maintain a certain body type, that -- it can be subtle … Sometimes it’s actually very explicit … I’ve seen [agency] contracts where, you know, they state that the model cannot gain more than 2 centimeters on her hips. And if that girl is signing with the agency … when she’s 13 or 14, well, of course her hips are going to get bigger. So it puts a huge amount of pressure on that girl … to stop her body from developing as it would naturally.

What does that pressure lead to?

In some cases, it -- I think it leads to eating disorders, or disordered eating … Some models will really go to extremes, and end up needing to get treatment. It’s a psychological disorder, and it’s complicated, and I’m not saying that the fashion industry is entirely to blame -- because there are a lot of, you know, cultural influences in play. But it’s something that, when I was modeling full-time, and I was sort of at the height of my career, I didn’t see.

And it’s only really as I’ve gotten older that I look back, and I realize that there were days when, you know, if I was shooting, and I needed to be able to fit into some clothes, I didn’t, like, eat properly …

I know a model who you know has worked for all the top publications, and who was very established … Her agency told her to get liposuction when she was still in high school. And you know that gave her a lot of health problems down the road …

I don’t want to sensationalize things, because I think that people love to hear that the perception is so different from the reality, and that, you know, models are all Photoshopped to the point where they’re unrecognizable. And you know, that’s not always the case.

But certainly, the reliance on really young models to portray the sort of female ideal of beauty to women is highly problematic. And it’s a labor issue for these girls.

Last year, with [the National Eating Disorders Association], you talked about feeling “somewhat ashamed” at being “complicit in promoting” a “white thin blond ideal.” Is that something fashion can exist without?

I certainly think so. And I do think that the industry is evolving. Slowly.

People within the industry, even just a few years ago, would not admit that eating disorders were a real problem in the business, that there were racist hiring practices, and so on.

So even just the fact that there is more of a dialogue now, and that people in positions of power in the industry are willing to acknowledge these problems, I think shows that change is happening, and that it’s possible. But I think we have a really long way to go.

Your group did research that found that 64 percent of models were asked to lose weight by their agencies. Who is primarily to blame for that?

The short answer is that there’s accountability all around. Models will blame agencies for … contracts that say they can’t gain, you know, 2 centimeters on their hips. Or you know, they’re told to go on these extreme diets for fashion week. The agencies will say that the sample size of the clothing is a zero or a two, and that in order to work, the models they represent need to have certain measurements, and that the designers are responsible for setting that standard. The designers will say that the editors push them to, you know, design for a certain size …

There is this sort of blame game that goes on in the industry … In order for things to change … I don’t think it’s really constructive to point fingers, so much as to have all different stakeholders in the business work toward the same goal.

[At a panel last year, you showed a clip from the movie "Girl Model" in which a modeling agency official says he prefers younger women because,] “It’s easier to command them because 16- to 18-year-olds already have a mind of their own.” How representative is that of the interactions between agents and child models?

Well, in practice, I would say … it’s pretty representative. But I don’t think that most agents would say that explicitly, or recognize that they are participating in that sort of, you know, exploitative way of dealing with their models. But of course, it’s easier to work with people who are compliant, and who don’t ask questions. And generally a girl is less likely to stand up for herself than, you know, an adult woman.

How does that play out in terms of sexual harassment?

I don’t think this is just the case for the modeling industry. I think across the board … the older you get as a woman, the more comfortable you feel standing up for yourself, and calling out people for inappropriate behavior -- whether that’s sexual harassment or anything else …

I remember being 14 years old, and put in situations on shoots where I was asked to pose topless. And I know it might sound strange, but I didn’t know that I could say no. And I knew that it didn’t feel right, but I just wanted to be liked, and I was surrounded by adults in positions of authority, who I assumed I had to listen to. And you know, if I were put in that position today, now as a 31-year-old, I would say, “Sorry, I don’t do that.” And I wouldn’t have trouble standing up for myself. But there’s a reason … children are treated differently under the law than adults. Because you don’t have the maturity or the strength to say no to inappropriate demands …

Under federal law models can’t sue for sexual harassment on the job. And that’s because the industry says that we’re independent contractors, and so, like any other freelancer, you know, we don’t have protection against sexual harassment, minimum wage requirements aren’t applied to us, and so on.

The Village Voice published a very negative take in 2010 on your film “Picture Me,” including the line, “Please, shed some tears for first-time filmmaker Sara Ziff, the beautiful, thin, blonde daughter of a neurobiology professor and a lawyer, whose difficult life includes a years-long rise to catwalk prominence.” How often do you get that kind of reaction? How do you respond to it?

I have mixed feelings about that film … There were scenes that we cut at the 11th hour that were much more revealing than anything that made the final cut -- that exposed lack of financial transparency, wage theft, cases of rape, you know, sexual harassment and assault of minors. And I was in a difficult position making that film, because I wanted to stay true to my story, and also, you know, advocate for other models who were being mistreated, and allow them to tell their stories. But not everyone felt comfortable exposing such personal information in a film that was going [to a wider audience] …

When I made the film, I and other models spoke in a very unfiltered way into the camera, and we didn’t know that this was going to be a film that anyone could really see. It was just sort of a personal side project … I was working on, off and on, over several years. And I just saw it as sort of a video diary. We had no budget, we had no cinematographer certainly, it was an amateur film and we didn’t pretend that it was anything other than that. But once we submitted it to festivals and … it was widely distributed, you know, it took on a life of its own …

I was trying to be a good storyteller, but I was also trying to be a good friend to models who were concerned about being blacklisted. And that’s a very real fear and so I stand by my choice. I made the decision to cut some footage that … were that included, no one could possibly have made those criticisms. but I think I did the right thing …

Standing back now, looking at how much the industry has already changed as a result, essentially, of that film, I know that my concerns were and are real, and that it’s just taken some time for other people to recognize those problems as labor issues.

I understand that, as a pretty, blond, young, white woman who has worked as a model, that I am an unsympathetic character. But there’s a certain prejudice against people in my position, because we are seen as privileged … and our concerns are not taken seriously. We’re working in an industry that is perceived as frivolous, and so our concerns are not taken seriously. But we’re still doing a job, and we should be treated fairly, just like anyone else who works for a living.

So we shouldn’t have to endure sexual abuse. We should, you know, not have to work grueling hours. We should be able to take a lunch break and get paid money for our work …

But I appreciate that most people who have no experience of the industry, and who just believe and see … this glamorous façade, have trouble sympathizing with anyone in my shoes.

At a forum with Bangladesh garment activists last year you called fashion “an industry that’s built on the backs of young women and girls who want to have a voice in their work.” How do you see the connection between your work and the work of garment workers in Bangladesh?

New York Fashion Week and, you know, the garment industry in Bangladesh couldn’t seem further apart. And you have models on the one hand, and garment workers on the other, who you know are working under very different socioeconomic conditions. But we all are trying to have a voice in our work, and we are working in a very hostile labor environment. You know, [Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity director] Kalpona [Akter] yesterday at the hearing acknowledged that less than 1 percent of factories are unionized. And you know, one thing I’ve heard come up from models is … as independent contractors -- so-called independent contractors -- we are not able to unionize on our end of the industry either …

I’m very aware that sort of making any kind of direct comparison between models and garment workers in Bangladesh, where women are making the lowest wages in the world, and are often risking their lives just to do their jobs - I know that that can be problematic. And so it’s important to sort of draw that connection sort of stepping back more broadly, and recognizing that the fashion industry is this $1.5 trillion business that relies heavily on young women workers.

And you know, models are highly visible, whereas garment workers are not. And I would love to see models who are the face of brands like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfinger, when they speak in interviews, I’d love to see them acknowledge that [parent company] PVH has signed on to the Accord [on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh].

I don’t expect models to … stand on picket lines, or point fingers. It’s difficult when your work is your image and … the concern that you’re risking your job by pointing fingers, that’s very real. But I think that there is a way that models could stand in solidarity with the women who are making the clothes they wear. And it’s not an obvious connection. I think as [Worker Rights Consortium director] Scott [Nova] said, it’s unexpected, but that’s what makes it interesting.

But we’re all working for the same companies and across the same supply chain so … to me the connection is very obvious.

When I spoke with Kalpona a few months ago, she said, “Ultimately, we are exploited by the same industry” and “these abuses may be the same,” and that she saw potential power in an effort to “end this exploitation through the supply chain.” What do you think that could look like, and how much support do you see for that among models in the U.S.?

In other industries, people are exploring new models for organizing. I know that people in the food and restaurant world are looking into how they can organize across the supply chain. And it’s still new enough that we’re – it’s an experiment.

It’s something that we’re still thinking through. How much support is there? I think that a lot more work needs to be done to educate people on my end of the industry on the issues.

I was backstage at a fashion show just a couple of days ago, and asked several models … if they were aware of the Rana Plaza collapse [that killed over 1,000 in Bangladesh]. And none of them had even heard of it. But they wanted to know more …

It’s not that these girls are uncaring, but they’re working in an environment where they’re, you know, sort of kept ignorant. And I just see so much potential for helping, for empowering these girls -- and they have a platform, whether they recognize it or not. They are in the media spotlight. And they could exercise that power by standing up for these young women who are not as visible …

Right now I’m trying to figure out how you foster an environment where you can raise awareness for what’s happening further down the supply chain.

The Model Alliance is one of hundreds of groups that have emerged in the past few decades who are organizing and mobilizing workers who either haven’t secured collective bargaining, or legally don’t have the option of winning collective bargaining in the U.S. In your view, without collective bargaining, what are the key kinds of leverage that the Model Alliance has to make changes in the industry?

The most obvious power that we have is that we are so visible. I mean, we are the faces of these brands, and we get a lot of media coverage …

When a prominent model speaks out, and says that she was pressured to lose so much weight that she developed an eating disorder and was extremely unhealthy … that can make the front page of a major newspaper or magazine. And so you know, essentially we’re working in the P.R. business and … I think our biggest muscle is sort of the power of the press. And recognizing again that we do have this platform, and that we can push brands and other industry leaders to change their practices.

How has the Model Alliance’s relationship with the industry leaders changed over the past two years?

Well, I think since the new [child model] law went into effect, people probably take us more seriously. There have been several efforts over the last … I’d say seven to eight years to promote health in the industry, and there have been these guidelines recommending that designers at New York Fashion Week not hire models under the age of 16, that they promote the message that beauty is health. It’s all pretty abstract, though. And for the first time, through the Model Alliance’s efforts, there’s a law on the books that actually ensures that designers take steps to foster a healthier work environment …

The industry, I’m sure, has taken note of this. Because we’ve seen a pretty significant change in the hiring practices -- not only in terms of having models who are a little bit older on the runways, but there is more diversity … I think something like 90 percent of the runways were white just a couple of seasons ago, and now it’s really a faux pas to be so exclusive …

We’re seeing changes, and I think that that’s the result of … people taking our organization more seriously.

By Josh Eidelson

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