The American fashion industry has a glittering, fluffy, so-this-season exterior that young girls around the world yearn to be a part of. But behind all that glam often lies a frightened, overworked, sexually abused teenager who is quickly learning that modeling is not always as sexy as it seems. "Picture Me," a new documentary about the modeling industry by Sarah Ziff, exposes the rampant child labor concerns and sexual assault behind the clothes and camera. Ziff, like many models, began her career at 14, when she was just past puberty. For five years, she snuck her filmmaker boyfriend into fashion shows and shoots to surreptitiously film what went on behind the camera. She also collected stories from her fellow models, many of whom were under 18. The stories, unlike the girls, are ugly. One 16-year-old model complained to her agent when a 45-year-old photographer made a pass at her. Her agent told her she should have slept with the man. Other young models tell stories of being sexually assaulted by photographers, forced to undress for non-nude auditions, and generally manhandled by the (mostly) men in the industry. And since the age of models in the fashion industry is decreasing, these aren't 19 and 20 year old women dealing with these assaults, they're 14 and 15 year old girls.
In the U.S., child labor laws exist to protect people under 18 from working in hazardous jobs or during hours that interfere with their education. Much of the enforcement of those laws focus on teens working in low-wage occupations or industries in which exploitation is common, such as agriculture. But since fashion modeling has a reputation for being a glamorous, highly sought-after job, the industry is left alone by monitoring agencies. With no one looking out for them, teen models end up in hazardous situations all the time. They are pressured to keep their still-developing bodies rail-thin. They are sexually assaulted by photographers and casting directors. They stay at shoots for incredibly long hours, sometimes without breaks. By all accounts, many teen models work in exploitative conditions. Conditions that until now, have been well-hidden.
"Picture Me" is currently making the film festival rounds to great applause, some of it from models themselves who have praised the film's honest portrayal of the dark side of the industry. But you can check out the trailer here.