From over-airbrushing to badly treated child models, the modelling industry needs an overhaul. Anna Hunter explains how it's starting to happen

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Most of us are aware of the smoke and mirrors trickery surrounding the production of impossibly polished images that smoulder at us from the pages of magazines and billboards. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop us from feeling that pang of envy or stab of self-doubt when we’re confronted with such visions of mortal perfection. Reassuring (or disconcerting?) then, that many of these images do not represent mortality at all, as the subjects of many a stylised photo spread don’t even recognise themselves post-production.

The latest model to speak out regarding overzealous airbrushing is L’Oréal spokesperson and Victoria’s Secret “angel” Doutzen Kroes, who revealed her uncomfortable feelings on the matter to the New York Post:

“Sometimes it makes me feel guilty now that I am in this profession that makes certain girls insecure…I always say, I don’t look like the picture.”

In September she disclosed similar sentiments to The Telegraph, lamenting the negative effects of such unattainable portrayals of beauty:

“Girls think they have to be that picture […] and even boys, they think that that picture exists.”

Doutzen isn’t the first, and will doubtless not be the last, model to make a stand on the subject; fellow high-profile model complainants include Coco Rocha, Erin Heatherton, Cindy Crawford and Gisele Bündchen. I think we can all agree that when supermodels are deemed lacking by the cruel Photoshop sword, it’s time to take a reality check.

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In fact, responsible models, agencies and magazines are campaigning for change in international industry attitudes as a whole. Deceptive imagery has caused outrage, and is being addressed from the ground up by magazines such as Verily , which refuse to feature Photoshopped pictures, and Vogue, which has launched a school initiative to highlight how fashion images are meticulously constructed. Unfortunately, however, it’s not simply airbrushed adverts that pose a threat to both models’ and consumers’ physical and mental wellbeing; as Sara Ziff, founder of The Model Alliance  underlines:

“How the industry treats its models influences the ideal presented in the magazines, and these images have a powerful, far-reaching effect on women in general.”

Unfortunately, until recent lobbying by The Model Alliance and other enlightened organisations, the exploitation of models has been shamefully commonplace. With little to no rights or legal protection, many vulnerable models have been subject to poor working conditions and financial manipulation (think little to no pay - until recently there were no minimum wage rules on the catwalk), not to mention industry pressure to maintain a low weight and reported cases of sexual abuse. Ziff highlights that such mistreatment and violation is made all the more shocking due to the fact that ‘the industry relies on a labour force of children, valued for their adolescent physique’. Given that close to 55% of today’s models begin their careers between the ages of 13 to 16, isn’t it time we began to treat child models (and all models for that matter) properly?

The Model Alliance certainly thinks so, and last week the not-for-profit organisation succeeded in changing the law. From 20 November models under the age of 18 in New York will be protected by new child labour legislation akin to regulations in place for child actors and performers. The guidelines stipulate that:

· A responsible person will be designated to monitor the activity and safety for each child performer under the age of 16 in the workplace

· Child models cannot work earlier than 5am and no later than 10pm on school nights; 12:30 am at weekends

· A financial trust must be established by a child model’s parent or guardian into which an employer must transfer at least 15% of gross earnings

· Employers must provide a nurse with paediatric experience as well as health and safety information

· Employers must provide facilities for education, including teachers where necessary and a dedicated workspace

· Parents, guardians and the models themselves must receive a detailed work schedule in advance

In addition to the above Ziff and The Model Alliance have been instrumental in supporting and improving model welfare from every angle:

“We also established a discreet grievance reporting system, have been working with industry leaders to improve financial transparency at agencies, and established a Backstage Privacy Policy at New York Fashion Week to avoid invasive photography while the models are changing.”

Thankfully, The Model Alliance isn’t the only organisation taking steps to empower and protect models. The UK are ahead of the pack, having established a model membership programme to the trade union Equity  in 2009, according models with benefits such as legal, accounting and insurance services, as well as establishing a minimum wage, working day restrictions and an expenses system. Nudity and semi-nudity must be agreed upon in advance, long-lasting changes to a model’s appearance must be at his or her discretion and respect and dignity must be shown towards the model at all times. Basic rights, you might think, but all prerogatives that have been denied to models in the past.

There’s still a long way to go in terms of addressing the ills of the fashion industry, and a widespread obsession with youth and innocence still poses a danger both to those on the catwalk and the consumer. Ensuring that child models are better represented and looked after, however, brightens the outlook. Even better still that these forward-thinking policies are grassroots changes - it’s models themselves who are shaping the future.