Freelance writers are a lot like fashion models. Stay with me here. In Ashley Mears’ Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, the changing demands and workplace challenges of your typical not-yet-shooting-off-into-superstardom model are very reminiscent of the same challenges writers are facing in a changing publishing world. There’s very little job security as people are hired out for contract work, there is a rapidly swelling number of desperate workers willing to take your (fragile) place in the food chain, and everyone now wants you to work for free.
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It’s not just writers and models working this way. These problems plague academia, construction work, technological fields, and the work-for-next-to-nothing model is starting to be found in the white-collar, corporate world. Mears uses the fashion world, a world she knows well as she herself is a former model, to explore the changing demands of the labor market. It’s an illuminating approach—her section on the much lower rates of male models is very telling about why there is still a wage gap between men and women in the rest of the working world, and how unconscious beliefs about gender play out in the workplace. She also delves a little into the uglier side of fashion—the accusations of glamorizing eating disorders and the racism of beauty standards.
I talked to Mears to further understand how the worker will fare in the new economy and being a feminist in the lookist world of fashion.
There appear to be parallels between the life of the freelance writer and the life of the model. Can you expand a little here on how the model is indicative of a new kind of labor?
Funny you should ask, not just because you are a journalist, another field in which much of the work is contracted out on a freelance basis, but because I just wrote an op-ed about this last week. The response from readers has been enormous: I've heard from adjuncts in Georgia, management consultants in the Midwest, and someone analyzing precarious work forms across Asia.
When looked at as a labor market, modeling shares many similarities with "bad jobs" in the new economy, namely lack of health or retirement benefits and lack of security. These kinds of jobs used to be dominant in the informal economy, think day laborers, but they are spilling over into sectors that used to offer secure and long-term employment, as in white-collar work and education.
Additionally, as work in culture industries goes, access to clients is controlled by brokers—people like modeling agents, art dealers, literary agents—so models must also work to maintain beneficial personal relationships to secure work. This means that much of the time that models spend working is unpaid and unseen work—on their personal relationships, on castings, on low or no-paid editorial jobs, to accrue status that may, or may not, be redeemed in an improved portfolio.
Plus as a winner-take-all market, the vast majority of people who try to be models are "losers" and invisible to the public, so jobs like modeling attract more workers than they should. My point in talking about modeling as work in these terms is to reveal the invisible labor behind the scenes that goes completely unnoticed in both the critique and the celebration of models' images. In the process, I discovered that in fact modeling shares several problematic traits experienced by more and more people in a range of traditionally secure sectors.
People in the fashion industry tend to talk about things like taste in this very vague language. The model they hired over another one simply had "it," and they can't put it in words. Models are found by chance and luck by scouts. Yet you try to study the ephemeral. How difficult was it to talk about these things in a very studied way?
I don't think it's possible to predict perfectly or to nail down a complete pattern of how something as ephemeral as a chosen look is. But it is possible to find some underlying principles to what seems like pure chance and genetic luck. As sociologists, we know that much more than individual preference guides taste, so I worked with Frederic Godart at INSEAD business school to build a database of Style.com records for one season of Fashion Week 2007 to see who walks for which clients.
First thing, contrary to fashion producers' statements in interviews that individual "gut instinct" drives them, we found a huge convergence in clients' taste for models. In any given show season, there are hundreds of models who walk the catwalk. Almost half walk just once, while a handful of models like Natasha Poly may walk in up to 60 shows per season. Thus a paradox emerges: if models are chosen according to personal taste, how does this convergence happen?
When you have hundreds of beautiful young and tall women to choose from, how do you make a choice? You imitate what high-status actors are choosing. How do they know which models are in demand by high-status clients? First, in interviews, I learned the importance of gossip. Fashion producers hang out with each other, they are embedded in networks together, they travel together. I also learned in interviews that the fashion world is fairly insular: clients and agents consume similar media, they share notions of "good taste" because they share similar social and cultural environments such as nightclubs and colleges. When it comes to choosing the “right” model for the catwalk, such choices happen collectively and are patterned along status lines.
So those are the basic principles: top models are made due to imitation of high-status actors in an uncertain market. It's a bit boring compared to the pure taste thesis, but pretty interesting for science.
On a more personal angle, you admitted that you had to leave some of your feminist objections at the door while modeling. So much has already been written on the feminist response to fashion and modeling, but I'm curious what your feminist thought process was at the time as a working model.
You can't really put on hold a feminist consciousness, since it's a way of seeing the world, but there are also many strands of feminist thought. To me, feminism is an awareness of gender as a constructed social structure that produces systemic inequalities it produces. For sure I saw gender everywhere in my research because I have studied feminist thought. Someone with a different set of theoretical trainings may have made different observations and analyzed the world differently.
A model’s career ends young. From the models you discussed in your book, what did they do after they aged out of the industry?
They go into a range of directions, different by gender because women tend to start their careers much earlier than men, who can have careers even after attending both high school and college. For some models, the market can be a distraction or derailment from schooling, but of the 40 I interviewed, a handful were juggling both school and work, or had plans to return to university for credentials in fields ranging from real estate and nursing. Another small group went into related freelance work in culture industries like acting, publishing, nightlife [party promotion and DJ'ing], design, yoga instruction, nutrition management and music production. They really spanned a range, and some were incredibly better off for having been in the market. They were able to purchase homes, pay off debt, and travel the world.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.