Essay: Models

by Becky Conekin .

‘Fierce fragility’ is what the model scouts say they are looking for. Brooke Shields was 15 when she told the world that nothing came between her and her Calvin's.

When someone utters the word ‘fetish’ Freud's name generally springs to mind, accompanied by images of sexual fetishes, like whips, stilettos, leather, and PVC. But the word should also call to mind Marx, that forgotten giant of the modern age. Marx’s concept of the commodity fetish predates Freud. For Marx, sensuous, real things become commodities when they are exchanged. They become fetishes when we project onto them values that really belong to the human world. For Marx, as for Freud, the fetishized object is never merely itself; it is a ‘symptom’ of something else.

But what happens when that fetishized object is, in fact, a subject, not an object, namely, a woman's or a girl’s body?

Citing Marx may seem a bit hard going to some, but I think that in Erica Schreiner’s film, Metamorphosis, the tragedy of the objectification of the lovely, young, female model is clearly related to the way she is commodified for others' consumption. Commodification and objectification can be seen as rather clichéd critiques of the world of fashion. Yet, when we look closer at Schreiner's film, the model is young and innocent. The magic of the butterfly, the glitter make-up of a pre-teen girl playing dress-up, the pure pleasure she takes in stroking her own body - all are symbols of the model girl's beauty, youth and burgeoning sexuality. But, then the dressing up becomes more grown up, donning pearls and white scarves, and as it does so, the model's playfulness ends in tears.Then, she is suffocated. The suffocation is literal, but also evocative of the sexual fetish play of autoasphyxiation. There is at times a soft porn look to this film, which helps to underscore the critique of the commodification and objectification of the young, female body.

Erica Schreiner, a twenty-something New York filmmaker, who herself features in the film, says that Metamorphosis demonstrates how fashion models are ‘an active part of the creative process within the fashion industry.’ They are ‘nameless artists, who sacrifice a great deal for fashion, for art.’ Metamorphosis examines the ‘effects the fashion industry and society have on models’. In the film, the model ‘begins with an innocent curiosity and exploration of fashion’, explains Schreiner, but ‘eventually, she is consumed by it.’

Metamorphosis points us to recently-revived controversies over the use of young models in the fashion industry.  Although last month Vogue announced that in all 19 editions of its magazine, world-wide, it would no longer use models who were under the age of 16 or who appeared ‘unhealthy’, it is clear that certain designers, model scouts, and particular fashion centers continue to seek young, ‘fresh’ female models.

In 1968 Lucie Clayton, the eponymous head of the most important modelling school in London, wrote in her book, The World of Modelling: ‘Fashion is full of the young. This is the major change of recent years. It's due to all the well-known factors - the commercial exploitability of the young and the many products geared to them, and also, I think, to the beauty of today's young people.’ [i]Clayton was specifically referring to the rise of Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy and Bond girl, Tania Mallet. They were 17 or 18 years old when they commenced modelling. At the age of 18, when Shrimpton left the Lucie Clayton school, she was, in her own words, ‘green as a spring salad’. [ii]

According to an article by Libby Copeland in the online magazine Slate last month: ‘An Australian modeling agency recently announced that it wanted 13-year-olds because 16-year-olds were 'too old'‘.[iii][iii]In the harrowing documentary, Girl Model, by Ashley Sabin and David Redmon, airing on BBC's Storyville on June 25th and screening at the IFC Center in September, a female model scout explains that younger girls are easier to work with than older ones. ‘You have more power, you have more influence, to guide and direct.’ Working at a model call in desolate, frigid, Siberia, this scout chooses Nadya, an extremely thin thirteen year old with long straight blonde hair and a small smattering of pimples. The scout, Ashley (not the filmmaker), is a former model, now in her early thirties. She declares that ‘Youth is beautiful, there's a luminosity’. She proclaims Nadya perfect for the Japanese market; ‘She looks young, almost like a prepubescent girl.’ Nadya is indeed so young that she appears at one point wearing a Teletubbies tee shirt. In a flashback, Ashley's former 18 year old modelling self features in a video shot in Tokyo in 1999. Talking to the camera, Ashley says: ‘This whole place is hurting me too much...Fashion is so boring to me these days...It is all the same stuff ...Anyone who does it must be an idiot....Is it really worth it?!’ Fifteen years later, back in the present on the Trans-Siberian Railway, she finds ironic that she is still working in the industry; ‘I was the person who hated this business more than anyone.’Even though it was Ashley who persuaded the filmmakers to follow her across China, Russia and Japan in order to highlight the exploitation of these young girls, she is not in touch with either Redmon or Sabin today. Currently, she works as a scout for New York's Elite modelling agency.

‘Fierce fragility’ is what the scouts say they are looking for. Brooke Shields was 15 when she told the world that nothing came between her and her Calvin's. Kate Moss is reported to have been reduced to tears on a shoot with Corrine Day at the same age. Fragility turning to tears is a key image in Erica Schreiner's depiction of her young, fashion model. Unlike what some in the fashion industry are longing to discover and commodify, Schreiner's model is not fierce; she is simply tragic. Just like the young women in Girl Model, she is trapped. And, in the end, she is consumed- not only as a commodity, but literally consumed. She is reduced to what can be used and disposed of. like a commodity. And like the beautiful Monarch butterfly in Metamorphosis, the fragile model at the center of Schreiner's film is devoured.


[i] Clayton, The World of Modelling and how to get the London model-girl look, p. 10.
[ii] Shrimpton,  as quoted by Robin Muir, ‘Two take Manhattan’, The Guardian, 16 March, 2007, http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2007/mar/17/weekend7.weekend1
[iii]Copeland, ‘Tweens on the Runway’, Slate, May 21, 2012 http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/05/pre_teen_runway_models_tracking_the_trend_.html