Talking Fashion Advocacy with Sara Ziff of Model Alliance

In conversation with Michelle Millar Fisher, Curatorial Assistant

In May 2016, Sara Ziff — a New Yorker who has been in the fashion industry as a model for two decades, and a recent graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government — came to MoMA to present as part of our exhibition kickoff event, the Items Abecedarium. Sara’s letter of the alphabet was X = XS, and she used her seven-minute slot to highlight the issues — including pressure to lose weight, sexual abuse, and wage theft — that models face (and that the organization she co-founded, Model Alliance, has successfully fought to change legislation around), as well as the severe challenges experienced by garment workers — another predominately female labor group.

Sara Ziff presenting at MoMA’s Items Abecedarium, May 16, 2016. Image courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Manuel Molina Martagon

During the recent spring 2017 fashion weeks, Sara and a collaborative cohort of interdisciplinary colleagues debuted their most recent research paper, “Results of a strategic science study to inform policies targeting extreme thinness standards in the fashion industry,” in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, academic research that percolated into the pages of Vogue and Buzzfeed, and was also published as an open letter which went viral under the hashtag #DearNYFW. Below, Sara shares a little of the work and intent behind the research.

For those readers unfamiliar with your academic and fashion industry lives, can you briefly introduce yourself and your stake in the conversation?

In 2012 I co-founded the Model Alliance, a labor advocacy group for models working in the American fashion industry in response to my and other models’ desire to improve our working conditions. Models are the faces of the fashion industry, but traditionally we haven’t had much of a voice or power within it, and we realized that we would be stronger together.

Our most significant achievement to date was in 2013, when we championed a law to extend labor protections to models under 18 years old in New York State. As someone who started modeling at 14 and experienced some of the pitfalls of working in an unregulated industry, that was a real milestone for me as an activist.

We’ve linked above to the longer research paper — which is excellent BTW — but can you tell us about the thesis and findings in a nutshell?

Last year, as a graduate student, I worked with researchers at Harvard and Northeastern to survey models at New York Fashion Week to assess the prevalence of disordered eating behaviors among models and how effective proposed legislation to help curtail those behaviors might be. The results weren’t surprising, but they were alarming. The 85 participants had a mean BMI that placed them in the “underweight” category, yet 62% of them said their agencies and other industry figures had told them to lose weight or change their shape. 21% were warned that their agency would no longer represent them unless they lost weight. Given that models sign exclusive contracts to their agencies, who control their access to jobs, this creates a coercive and potentially dangerous working environment.

The models reported dieting (71%), skipping meals (57%), and fasts and cleanses (52%). Some respondents reported extreme measures, including stimulant use (17%) and self-induced vomiting (8%).

What led you to pursue this research direction? Why do you find it so compelling as an issue?

Fashion models are some of the most visible women in the world. Although we are perceived to be powerful figures in our culture, we have almost no rights and protections as workers. I think this is largely due to sexism. Modeling, and appearance-based work more generally, is not always recognized as work, and our concerns tend to be trivialized and dismissed. When it comes to regulating our bodies, and our working lives, I think we should have a say in the policies that will most directly affect us.

This conversation has surfaced more frequently during fashion weeks in recent years, including the “Model BMI Law” in France in 2015, for example. Yet such laws give the greater burden of regulation to models, who have to get measured and maintain BMI ratios, while designers and photographers still routinely use tiny sample sizes. Do you see positive movement forward or are you afraid the conversation will stagnate?

It’s been a process educating the industry and the public that the extreme thinness standard in the fashion industry is both a labor issue and a public health concern. As a labor issue, it comes down to the power imbalance between the models, on the one hand, and the agencies, designers, casting directors, and editors, on the other. Although the vast majority of models have very little control over their working lives, and have to succumb to the whims and biases of others, generally speaking, in the US agencies and clients say that we are independent contractors. And as independent contractors, we are vulnerable because we do not have labor rights and health and safety protections that are afforded to employees.

As doctors and eating disorders specialists have said, BMI is not an accurate measure of individual health, and it isn’t fair to ban healthy models from working just because they have a relatively low BMI. Obviously we need more than one sample size, to accommodate a variety of size and shape, but modeling agencies (aka “model management companies”) should also have a responsibility to the health and well-being of their talent. Last spring, we introduced a bill that would have established labor rights and health and safety protections for models in California, but unfortunately modeling agencies lobbied against us and killed our bill behind closed doors. It passed the labor and employment committee, but in the end, due to one powerful agency’s lobbying efforts, there wasn’t even a vote.

It is important to foreground the voices of models, many of whom are incredibly young and perhaps not yet confident in terms of giving voice to the pressures they are subject to. It’s wonderful that your study engages these professionals and offers them a platform. Are there any stories that stuck with you particularly from your interviews?

According to our study, the models rated the regulations around BMI as being unlikely to be helpful and very difficult to implement. The policies regarding compensation in money rather than “trade,” job security, benefits — things that gave models more power within the industry — were rated much more positively.

In terms of stories, models have been told to take up smoking to curb their appetite. They’ve been told to get off birth control because of the few pounds of weight gain. They’ve been told to go on extreme diets, and some have even reported models eating cotton balls dipped in juice as a way to stay thin. A friend of mine’s agency put her on a liquid-only diet and made her urinate on ketosis sticks to prove that she was not eating carbohydrates and was doing everything she could to lose the mandated amount of weight. She told me that it hurt to lay down on her side because she could feel her ribs. I’ve heard so many stories, but these are a few that stand out in my mind.

What’s next, for the issue and for your participation in it?

Currently we’re conducting interviews with a wide range of stakeholders to hear their thoughts on the perceived impact and feasibility of various policy initiatives. We’ve also been meeting with models to build community and give them the opportunity to share their stories and perspectives with each other. I really believe that healthy working conditions should be a right, not just a trend, and I’m encouraged by the momentum we’ve created to achieve that goal.