Investing in the Future: The Psychological Risks of Underage Modeling

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by Barbara Gonzalez, Social Justice & Fashion Columnist

October 22, 2013 - Coco Rocha announcing the new legislation passed by Cuomo.
October 22, 2013 – Coco Rocha announcing the new legislation passed by Cuomo.

This past Monday, New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to protect underage models with labor rights in hopes of encouraging designers to hire models that are over the age of 18. Now classified as “child performers,” models under the age of 18 have a curfew of 12:00 am on school nights and 12:30 am on non-school nights. Additionally while they are working they require breaks for meals and study time, and they are not allowed to return to work for 12 hours after they leave for the day. To ensure that these guidelines are being enforced, the Department of Labor requires designers to keep records of the child’s time of arrival, departure and break times. The child is also restricted from missing more than three consecutive days of school, and if they do, the employer is required to provide and pay for an on-set tutor. The Department of Labor also requires that 15% of the child’s income be put into a trust fund, managed by his or her guardian, who also must accompany the child to work if he or she is under 16. If any of these requirements are violated, it can result in a fine amounting to as much as $3000.

While it is surprising that it took this long for a law to be passed to preserve those who play such an essential role in the fashion world, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Health Initiative has played an important role in promoting education and encouraging dialogue within the industry about these health issues. One of the Health Initiative Guidelines specifically addresses “support of the well-being of young individuals” where they propose going as far as checking each model’s ID before they walk the runway.

“Designers share a responsibility to protect women, and very young girls in particular, sending the message that beauty is health,” states CDFA explicitly in their Health Initiative guidelines.

However, that doesn’t begin to address the variety of other psychological effects that can potentially effect underage models. Being thrown into a profession at such a young age where one is solely judged based on their aesthetics can be incredibly harmful to the psyche of a teenager. In this scenario, it’s not just their peers in high school, but world-renowned fashion icons who they idolize pressuring them to shed the “extra” inches. Racier designers that hire teenage models can also risk the threat of sexual exploitation of a minor, dressing a teenager in a persona that is better suited for a sensual, mature model. These dynamics in the industry can cultivate a distorted idea of what success is, one focused on achieving an unrealistic body type as opposed to accomplishing goals having to do with their intelligence or other empowering qualities.

While these are pressures that have an effect on models of all ages, it is crucial that these labor laws are enforced in order to protect minors who are more easily influenced. If aspiring models begin to wait to begin their career later on in their lives, this can even potentially lead to the decline in percentages of unhealthy habits in the industry. If they are properly educated about the possible health risks before they begin their careers, hopefully this can inspire them to fight back against the unrealistic standards that are set and break the chain.

Social Justice and Fashion FI

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