Not Model Behavior: The Pervasiveness of Sexual Harassment in the Fashion Industry

Credit: iStock.com/Sam Thomas

By Jocelyn Elise Crowley, Ph.D.

Christie Brinkley. Twiggy. Joan Smalls. Kendall Jenner. Iman. Linda Evangelista. Naomi Campbell. Cindy Crawford. Gigi Hadid. Lauren Hutton. Christy Turlington. Claudia Schiffer.  The names of these women should all ring a bell, especially among women. Throughout their lives, they all have become supermodels in the field of fashion. They hit the jackpot in their respective careers by having the right “look” at the right time. Clients have paid them millions of dollars to promote their clothes and other types of product lines. Their lives are seemingly perfect to outside observers, as they pose in the limelight wearing beautiful outfits, hanging out with celebrities and rock stars, and relaxing in their glamorous homes.

Yet the reality of the overwhelming majority of models working in the fashion industry is much different. Most of them begin work in their young, teenaged years around, make around $30,000 per year, and age out of the career by their mid-twenties. The work is demanding, whether they are modeling for catalogs, as clothing “fit” models, or on the runways.

While women are the overwhelming majority of models in the United States, men, notably, control key aspects of the industry. They are the designers of clothes, agency professionals who represent models, casting directors, and photographers. In order to be successful in the field of modeling, women know that they must make all of these men happy and comfortable. One false move with these male authoritative figures could spell the death of a model’s career. Models therefore are in extremely vulnerable positions as they attempt to navigate their careers.

My research published in Gender & Society on models in the fashion industry aimed to reveal an even seedier side of the industry: sexual harassment.  In the course of their normal work day, models often travel alone to meet with mostly male industry players. They might interact with a designer, take photos with a photographer, or go to a casting call with only one man present.

During these interactions, two notable dynamics are happening that serve to enable sexual harassment. First, a model is selling herself in a way: her body is the one around which products will be displayed. Men view the physicality of her job as giving them permission to speak and touch her in ways that are wildly inappropriate in other occupations.

Second, several features of the modeling industry increase the likelihood of sexual harassment. Models tend to be young and in many cases underage. This age disparity between them and men controlling the industry makes these models vulnerable to sexual harassment because these men are authority figures to them and they feel like they need to follow their direction. In addition, the modeling industry thrives on producing the “art” or “high fashion;” both are highly subjective goals. There is also no “rule book” for models in terms of what is appropriate and inappropriate employment behavior. Men controlling the industry can hide behind these vague employment terms when they are verbally or physically sexually aggressive with them. Lastly, the modeling industry is dominated by “kingmakers,” mostly men who are key players in the field and who purport to have the ability to make or break models’ careers. Models know this, and thus try to be as deferential as possible in their interactions with them. This power imbalance, too, can lead men to engage in sexually harassing behaviors.

My research demonstrates that the physicality of a model’s job as well as industry conditions lead to an environment where sexual harassment runs rampant. Men inquire about models’ sexual history, have no problem commenting on the models’ bodies in sexist ways, and feel completely free to ask models out on dates. Other men working in the industry order models to take off their clothes and pose nude without thinking twice. Men also exploit models by touching them, engaging in exhibitionism, or sexually assaulting them.

The fashion industry has a serious problem. Most supermodels can control their own professional destinies because of their enormous financial resources. But the majority of models working in the industry are not supermodels. They are women attempting to do a professional job in an environment where men control major aspects of their careers. And many of them are sexually harassed in the process.

In recent years, the fashion industry has started to come to terms with the #MeToo movement, but much work still needs to be done. Harassers need to be held accountable, and models need to have their employment rights clearly spelled out. My research has highlighted their stories of harassment, but this is only the beginning of shining a bright light on the horror of their situations and how we, as a society, need to hold men in positions of power accountable for their damaging, inexcusable, and illegal abuse.

Jocelyn Elise Crowley is a Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Her research focuses on the American family as well as the intersection of gender and work. Notable books include The Politics of Child Support in America, Defiant Dads: Fathers’ Rights Activists in America, Mothers Unite! Organizing for Workplace Flexibility and the Transformation of Family Life, and Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain from Mid-Life Splits.