Responsibility in the Fashion Industry
How I Stay Sane in a Critical World
Photo by: Steven Meisel
“You talk to them on the phone. You deal with them on shoots. You meet them at parties. You read their blogs. You visit their sites. You see them on TV interviews. They are the critical fashionistas who you will see pointing to some poor girls new skirt while exclaiming: “Ohhhh, that’s just so last season’s hemline!!!” as they roll their eyes and cluck their tongues. You want to despise them but you find yourself sounding just like them in no short time! Why?? Because we’re in the fashion industry, kids, and that’s what we are exposed to on a daily basis!”
I’ve sat in on a few castings in my day. And I’m still embarrassed to admit that it can be a shark frenzying experience. Knee fat. Eye fat. Back fat. Elbow fat. There’s so many places fat can be found when you are a fashionista and you’re looking at a model and/or her book. I’ve seen editors rip up model’s comp cards in front of them as they point to the door and yelled: “NEXT!!!” I saw an art director take hold of a model’s hand and show them how their fingernails were shaped weird and it threw off her whole hand’s visual experience. I’ve watched fashion editors just shake their heads at a model while saying, “oh honey, pleeeeeease! I hope you haven’t quit your day job!” I heard a model booker suggest to one of her young model’s to get plastic surgery on her toes to shorten them.
And I’ve been guilty of it myself. Until about 3 years ago and then something happened to me that was so unnerving that I have ended my trashy, eye rolling BS. I had a young model approach me about doing some testing for her book. She was 6 0 and probably weighed about 130 pounds. She looked healthy. She looked great, actually. She wanted to do a test doing some body stuff, you know, swimsuits, suggestive nudity, backlit, silhouette shots. I had this idea in mind and thought it would work out great for both of us. And then those fatal words just came rolling off my tongue; “It’d be great if you lost a few pounds for it”. She looked crestfallen, her head bowed and she nodded, saying she had been feeling fat and wanted to lose some weight. She left, I left and I didn’t think much about it. And then 3 weeks later I ran into her at a fashion show. This 6 0 model had to have dropped at least 20 pounds since that ill-fated day I told her to lose some weight! She came running up to me, excited as hell and twirled around showing me how she took “my advice” and lost weight! I was mortified. I was honestly ashamed of myself. She looked like an Auschwitz victim. Her hip bones actually made a clicking sound when she walked. Her collar bone looked like you could cut yourself on it. Her eyes were sunken back, her hair was limp, her skin was broken out. She obviously had either gotten her results from drugs or starving herself, or both. And it was then that I realized that I have a responsibility to these girls, to these models and I had better watch what I say and how I say it from now on.
Photo by: Steven Meisel
Look, it can become a petty world when everything is based on looks. And I am still confronted with this every day. I get about 10 to 20 emails a week from hopeful models asking me for advice about how to get into modeling. They ask me to look at their pictures and to give them an honest critique. Some of the girls are easy to write back. They have potential and I give them some good advice. But there are some that just don’t have any potential at all. I literally have to get up from my computer sometimes and walk away. I talk to my husband, tell him about the email, play with my dog, distract myself somehow and then come back and sit down, ready to write to them. So what do I say to these girls who just don’t have what it takes? What I do now is thank them for writing to me and tell them they are attractive women! I then remind them of the strict age and height requirements in the fashion industry and if they don’t meet those requirements, maybe they could look into the possibility of doing commercial print work if they still want to pursue it. I leave it impersonal but not necessarily cold. I’m nice but I don’t leave it too open. I feel bad for these girls. I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news or dash anyone’s dreams to the ground. I’m also not for lying or misleading anyone either. It’s a tough call and I honestly don’t like this part of the job.
But there is a way to be diplomatic and responsible and avoid just being a complete jerk. I used to be much more of a jerk. One girl fainted while I was shooting her for a beauty campaign. When she came to, I asked her if I could buy her a sandwich?? It was my cocky version of Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake”. It is irresponsible to be such a bitch. These girls are so needy of approval and attention and while it can be annoying, it’s really our job not to berate any one or cause anyone any deeper self esteem issues.
I don’t take myself so seriously anymore. And I don’t take fashion so seriously either. We’re NOT trying to save the world, one dress at a time. We are image makers, we supply the world with beauty and escape. And hopefully we can sell that beauty to the world. Our kindness towards the models and others in the fashion business goes a helluva lot farther than our catty sides. I recognize that I am not the Queen of Be All, End All advice. I offer only my own advice. I urge potential models to seek advice from other photographers. I am careful with my words now. I keep the cynicism off my tongue and abide by my mother’s rule of if I can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. And yes, I admit it, I have found myself often with my teeth biting my tongue and my lips pursed together with a Cheshire Cat grin on my face. Because the tendency to be critical is so ALLOWED and CONDONED in our industry that I know I could get away with being catty and cynical. But now, I simply do not want to hurt any one’s feelings or turn anyone into an anorexic. I have finally realized the responsibility I have with working with the vulnerable people out there who are being judged SIMPLY on WHAT they LOOK like.
I’ll leave you with this: I had dinner with a very close friend of mine and his lover. His lover works for a top fashion company who’s ads you see every month in all the fashion magazines. In other words: Huge Fashion Company. My friend, at one point during the dinner conversation said to his lover, “My God, Sweetheart, you can be so JUDGMENTAL” at which point his lover turned around and said, “I’m in the fashion industry, sweetie, it’s part of my job description”. We all laughed and admitted how true it is. I’m just pointing out that we can water down the cattiness by reminding ourselves of our responsibility in this industry. And that kindness isn’t mistaken for weakness in this situation. It shows true compassion and a dose of humility. Would you like people criticizing how you look when after all, we all know that beauty truly is only “skin deep”? Hey, at the end of the day, being nice and diplomatic has helped me enjoy my job a whole lot more! And that’s what it’s all about!