Discuss: Race, weight and the modeling industry

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

From the age of around 16 I've been obsessed with fashion. I loved the way it made me feel about myself, the way one, seemingly insignificant, item of clothing could drastically increase my confidence. Originally used as a way to blend in, fashion quickly became my creative outlet. I found that as I experimented with different styles, I not only became more confident internally but externally too. I started to like the way I looked in more daring clothes and, most importantly, started to understand that my worth didn't just equate to that little number on the label. And yet, when I first explored the fashion industry as an intern (unpaid work experience) at a high end clothing distributor, I felt disappointed and uneasy. Despite claims that size 0 models were a thing of the past, I spent my time sifting through hundreds of catwalks inundated with tiny, skeletal girls. I felt embarrassed to be working in an industry that went against everything I believed in. Embarrassed that I had thought that it would be any different. These girls, just barely older than myself (17 at the time), were wasting away. And, worse still, they were being paraded around as the height of beauty. A body to idolise. A body that should be desired. A body that was achievable. My unease was only heightened by the complete lack of ethnic diversity. As a poc I felt ugly. If this was true beauty then where did I fit in? I couldn't change the colour of my skin or the darkness of my hair, so did this mean society thought me undesirable and grotesque? 

Despite these feelings, I moved on. I left the experience feeling defeated and knowing that I didn't want to be part of an industry that didn't want me. I felt confused knowing that the one thing that had brought me such joy, could suddenly bring me the very opposite. I no longer craved the excitement of London Fashion Week, or fauned over fashion magazines. Every time I looked at a model I couldnt help but notice my own flaws, including the darkness of my skin. But I left it. It wasn't until I reached university when I became close with a girl who modeled, that it finally all came flooding back. She was tiny and very clearly had an eating disorder, and yet she continued to be used by this modeling agency. A well-known, well-established modeling agency which works with thousands of brands worldwide. I was again shrouded with feelings of inadequacy. I just want to point out here that this was not to do with the girl at all but the modeling industry itself. I was reminded that I didn't belong, but this time I was angry. I was angry for this girl who had been so failed by society and those who should've protected her, and I was angry for myself. A model at it's most basic is, a representation or simulation (1), and, in this case, should be a representation of the population. However, with a 2011 UK census showing that 6.8% of the population is an ethnic minority (2), and the average dress size a 16 (3), population representation is definitely not a fundemental issue within the industry.  

I was furious. I had heard about the 2007 London Fashion Week protests (4), and watched closely when France introduced bans on hiring size 0 models (5), so how was this possible? Why are we continuing to condone an industry that perpetuates unhealthy beauty standards? While those in the industry hide behind a screen of 'fake progression' and preech the idea that the vast majority know that models don't reflect population, research in this area consistently indicates otherwise. One recent publication states that, as there are no objective standards, model choice relies on conventions and stereotypes alongside class. While the commercial market now leans more towards diversity and 'healthy' body standards, the editorial market seek to awe and inspire through the use of rare, unavailable femininity. As a concept, this is linked to upper class whiteness and extreme slenderness, explaining the lack of diversity in high end fashion and marketing (6). This is also supported by a 2012 study, which suggested that, while black models were occasionally hired, they would be subject to much harsher and higher standards, whereby the model would be in constant fear that her race may act as a liability (7). 

While many might suggest that internet access and an increasing level of globalisation makes model diversity less problematic due to the option to curate what you view, I would argue the complete opposite. The increased availability to social media only works to enhance the impact of model beauty standards. While you used to be able to 'switch off' and limit your exposure to unachievable body standards, you're now constantly subject to them through the means of instagram, snapchat and internet ads. Research shows that mass media typically favours the 'thin ideal,' which results in increased body dissatisfaction among young women and girls (8).  Although the reason behind eating disorders is varied and often not caused by a singular factor, this promotion of unhealthy and unachievable body standards has been shown to be one of the leading contributors to disordered eating (9). This is also reflected  by a 2017 study, where the majority of the model patrticipants reported high levels of pressure to lose weight by modeling agencies, resulting in unhealthy weight control behaviours (10).

Additionally, there is very little research in the area of how this constant exposure to disproportionately slim, white woman manifest in the minds of ethnic minorities. One study suggests that, while black women tend to report higher self esteem and body image, when wishful identification (wanting to look like an idolised individual) was paired with decreased perceived similarity (e.g. colour of skin) there was a higher level of body surveillance (11). Body surveillance can manifest as an unhealthy preoccupation with how you look. In short, although this affected both white and black women, while white women are more likely to have more similarities with their idolised individual, due to them mostly being white with typically western features, ethnic minorities would have less in common. This essentially links back to cognitive dissonance, whereby individuals will try to lessen the gap between their current self and their ideal self. If this cannot be done, such in the case of skin colour differences, unhealthy habits may form as a replacement. 

I think I'm most disappointed by the lack of change within this industry, despite clear evidence showing a strong need for it. Much like the concept of 'greenwashing,' agencies love to hide behind a guise. But occasionally hiring an ethnic minority individual, who is maybe a size 10 doesn't count as enough progress in my eyes. While these campaigns may be pushed into the forefront, they merely act as a veil to mask the ever present problems at the core. The catwalk composition has changed very little from my initial interaction with it back in 2014, and still works to promote skin and bone body ideals. In my eyes a body born from unhealthy behaviours is not achievable, should not be desired, and should definitely not be idolised. We should be working together to create a healthier, happier and more inclusive society, where the colour of your skin or the number on your scales doesn't cause you to question your worth.   

What do you think of the modeling industry? I'd love to know your thoughts below!

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1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/model

2. Office for National Statistics. (2011). 2011 ONS Census. London: Office for National Statistics.

3. Dahlgreen, W. (2013, November 20). Size 12 is Britain's 'ideal' Dress Size. Retrieved from YouGov: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2013/11/20/size-12-britains-ideal-dress-size

6. Mears, A. (2010). Size zero high-end ethnic: Cultural production and the reproduction of culture in fashion modeling. Poetics 38(1), 21-46

7. Wissinger, E. (2012). Managing the semiotics of skin tone: Race and aesthetic labor in the fashion modeling industry. Economic and Industrial Democracy 33(1), 125-143.

8. Spettigue, W., & Henderson, K. A. (2004). Eating Disorders and the Role of the Media. Can Child Adolesc Psychiatr Rev 13(1), 16–19.

9. Perloff, R. M. (2014). Social Media Effects on Young Women’s Body Image Concerns: Theoretical Perspectives and an Agenda for Research. Sex Roles 71, 363–377.

10. Rodgers, R. F., Ziff, S., Lowry, A. S., K. Y., & Austin, S. B. (2017). Results of a strategic science study to inform policies targeting extreme thinness standards in the fashion industry. Eating Disorders, 284-292

11. Greenwood, D. N., & Cin, S. D. (2012). Ethnicity and Body Consciousness: Black and White AmericanWomen’s Negotiation of Media Ideals and Others’ Approval. Psychology of Popular Media Culture 1(4), 220 –235.

Additional Reading: 



  1. Yeah modelling makes a lot of girls have eating disorders because they are trying to be the perfect size and black people are often times not given enough attention or recognition.

  2. It's such a serious issue..not only in modeling industry but women in general.. and yet we just ignore it.. in a way we encourage this by not changing this..

    Thanks for sharing this.. have a great day!

  3. Thanks for this insight. People behind the modelling industry portrays a false reality, promoting a standard beauty which most of the women around the globe do not possess. Though, I would say they have improved in the past few years as they hire medium to plus-sized or disabled, but I hope it's more than just publicity.

  4. I've never understood why women's jeans are measured in such and obscure and none standard way. Like a size 10 jeans for women in the UK can be the same size as a size 12 in a different store and a size 8 in another, and there's no such thing as odd number sizes. Whereas men's jeans are done by waist size in inches and inside and and outside leg measurements in inches, which makes sense. So what the hell is up with women's clothes and giving them random numbers that rarely have any meaning?

    Don't even get me started in other beauty standards and racial discrimination in the fashion world, especially when this has sustained a skin bleaching industry

  5. This is so important! Thank you so much for taking the time to write this blog post. Many girls are doing everything they could to be size 0 and this is so extremely sad. I used to be one of those girls. I used to be a chubby girl and watching these pretty ladies on the TV made my confidence level go under the ground! Luckily, as I grew up I realized how unhealthy this whole thing is. :( It's heartbreaking to see that this beauty standard is still ON after so many years. I really hope that the modeling industry realized how harmful it is for young and self-conscious girls to see nothing but skinny models on the catwalk.

    It's not that they're skinny. It's that they're doing harmful things to their bodies to be skinny and this is detrimental to their health. But you won't see or hear this. You'll only see happy faces and skinny bodies. Nothing else.

  6. The size zero trend (?) was something that had me wholeheartedly and comprehensively mentally checking out of anything related to fashion and the beauty industry. The idea that anyone should aspire to be nothing, a literal physical representation of zero, was so off putting to me I switched off. There was something almost disturbing that women (not exclusively, but mostly a target aimed at women) were being encouraged and sort after if they made themselves as small as possible.

  7. Thanks for sharing light on this important topic! This was a great and informative post!

  8. It a shame what girls go through all in the name of size zero and the fashion industry promotes it. I think lately, things have improved. I see a lot of plus size models, hijabi models and diversity in race. This is not to say the size 0 trend is not there but things are gradually improving. Thanks for shedding light on this

  9. Hi Meera. Sadly, your article pretty much confirms what I'd suspected was the case (I have no first hand experience, it's just a general perception). What do you think the answer is?
    Very nicely laid out and referenced, by the way. Spot the student! :-)

  10. A suuuper interesting post, thank you for sharing this! I actually discussed this with a friend couple days back and we debated whether Victoria's Secret's decision to close their doors was okay or not. I honestly can't understand the brand! How fukken difficult could it be to increase their range of sizes and include some normal size people into their fashion shows? They didn't even try, they just gave up. And I hate people/brands(brands are people) who give up easily! The brand overall is a disgrace.
    Also very interesting to read about these studies you mention: I used to work in market research and oh lord, the studies show exactly what the brand/people paying for them WANT them to show. We did research for companies as well as political parties and not one of the studies that were published represented real answers. Basically, never trust a statistic ;)

    Teresa Maria | Outlandish Blog

  11. Great post! Thank you for sharing! I agree modelling really lacks diversity and is focused on only one body type.

  12. I recently read the book in your photo and it was so eye opening to me. I genuinely feel like we need more diversity in so many areas, it is so important that everyone feels like they are represented.

    Love, Amie ❤
    The Curvaceous Vegan

  13. You make a lot of good points here. I think that is why I never got into fashion. It just always made me feel bad about myself.

  14. I don't follow much women's fashion (shock) but since the BLM protests I've seen a few companies seemingly increase their racial diversity.However sadly some just rode the trend and have now reverted back to majority white slim women.

  15. I've been a part of the fashion industry for a while now and everything you've brought up is 100% accurate. It doesn't help that the industry is slow to change either.

  16. This was so so so interesting to me. When I started my GCSE textiles our first bit of homework was to buy a fashion magazine and study trends, styles etc. 12 years later, I'm still subscribed to Vogue. I fell in love with the fashion industry instantly. The second to last paragraph really made me think. I've been a size 0 naturally pretty much my whole life (I think a big issue with that term is that a lot of models are smaller than that but there's no size number smaller), and I'm white but I'm also only 5ft tall. And I would look at those women and compare alllll the time. They weren't much smaller than me and I saw a lot of similarities that made it easy to compare, other than being the best part of a foot smaller than most of them. I still love fashion, and models. But the industry definitely has a long way to go if they truly want to support health. But you'll always find the girl who drinks a few litres of water and tries to add weight to her pockets to appear healthier on the scales even if they do try to be stricter with it too. Really interesting read! x


  17. Fashion is an interesting world. There are so many ways that people can express themselves visually, incorporating art into what you wear. It is so hard to stomach the beauty ideals. Being size 0 isn't everything. The fashion industry needs to be better about inclusion and diversity. Beauty comes in all tones, sizes, shapes, etc. This leads to so many issues like eating disorders, people not being comfortable in their own skins, and maybe people rejecting their culture because of underrepresentation. I am hoping this industry will improve over time.

    Nancy ✨ exquisitely.me

  18. I've wanted to be a model when i was in my late teens but hated the mental health impacts it can have on you. There has definitely been a change in models for clothing website like h&m recently. There is a lot more diversity in size and ethnicity, which is such a positive step in the right direction.

    Steph x

  19. During my teenage years, modelling is what most girls look forward to. At some point, I did some dieting (most teenagers do) to no avail. Simply because I got a chubby built. But I didn't really look into that so much. With the modelling business I agree that is harmful to many and I wish that these women may see more of themselves rather than be subjected to such pressures. And this all comes down to marketing strategy, trying to dictate society what "fashion" is.

  20. Had absolutely no idea this was STILL happening. We are in 2020, for crying out loud, and still we hear and see the same rhetoric about race and class. And its always to do with women. High End editorial fashion also only appeals to about 1% of the population and yet in has such damaging affects on our society - they way young girls think they should look and what men think they want. I am astounding that these unrealistic ideals still exist. We have started to make head way in the acting industry (not much but change is happening) with lots of diversity initiatives and the Act for change that saw more opportunities for people from culturally diverse backgrounds. Something like that needs to happen in the fashion industry and it starts with people like yourself calling it out and writing about it. Thank you for sharing your experience - being dark is beautiful (I am a fan of my skin colour, curls and freckles - its taken a while to get here) and no one will tell me differently. x


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