Picture Perfect: The dark side of modelling

With more and more women opening up about the dark side of the modelling industry, we investigated the damaging impact of telling girls that they’re ‘too big’ or ‘too small’.

By Olivia Widdowson @widdowsonolivia | Esra Meslati @esraahm87255727 | Jaden Marshall @jadensjournalism 
Image by Charlotte Bower (instagram)

Ana Carolina Reston was a 13-year-old model, with a career that was just starting to take off. After a few years of success, in 2003, she signed to Elite, a large modelling company in her native Brazil. Travelling to China for her first shoot, she was forcefully told by her agency that she was ‘too fat’, despite only weighing eight stone. She started a new diet that consisted of only eating apples and tomatoes, a little fruit juice and a lot of exercise, and soon lost another two stone. Ana had fallen into anorexia. When she arrived home to Brazil, she was gaunt, colourless and unrecognisable from the girl that had left. She was soon admitted into Samaritano Hospital in Sao Paulo, where she had to be force fed through a tube in order to eat. But after three weeks, she tragically died at the age of 18.

Models? The common perception is of an easy life earning huge amount of money whilst partying and wearing the best clothes. To most people, they’re just the pretty face on the front of magazines and billboards. And to a certain extent, that’s true. But very little is said about the dark underbelly of the industry that has been damaging the mental and physical health of woman for as long as the profession has existed. In an already competitive field, models are given strict guidelines as to what size they have to be, and unhealthy dieting, and even starving, has become something of an industry standard practise.  

We talked to sixty people, whose ages ranged from thirteen to twenty, a survey of ten simple questions about the modelling industry. 48 of them claimed that they “would class a plus size model as a size 18-20 (L),” with the remaining 12 stating that it would be a size 14-16 (M). We also enquired as to what they thought a modelling agency would consider as plus size, to which the answers were: 34 people said 10/12 (S/M), 20 people said 14-16 (M), 5 people said 18-20 (L) and one person saying 4-8 (S). With the average dress size in the UK being a size 14-16, does this mean that, in the modelling industry, most women would be considered as plus size?

She had to be forced fed through a tube in order for her to eat. She spent 21 days in this hospital and tragically she died at the age of 18

Posing as aspiring models, we set about phoning agencies around the UK in an attempt to find out what physical requirements were expected of those new to the industry. What we discovered left us at a loss for words. Asking the same question to each company (What are the measurement requirements to be a model at your company?”), we contacted D1 Models, PRM, Bookings Model Agency and Base Models. Bookings Model Agency informed us that they were only interested in women who were “5”9’ and above” and only those “between size 8 and 10.” Asking whether they would consider a size 12, the informed us that they “don’t have a plus size.” When we contacted Bookings Models Agency to inform them of this article, they declined to comment.

“Sometimes I feel pressured, especially when they give me revealing clothes,” a model for New York Fashion Agency, who wished to remain anonymous, said. She appeared nervous, and reluctant to speak openly about her experiences. Denying that there was any pressure to follow a specific diet, she did reveal that she has to exercise a lot prior to shooting dates. With modelling agencies considering size 12 as “plus size” and young models expected to punish their bodies for shoots, is it really a surprise that so many aspiring and established models suffer from mental health problems?

We reached out to Yasmin Minovski, a plus size Instagram model, with over seven thousand followers and a contract with Bella Management. “There are still models out there starving themselves,” she told us, “there are agencies that weigh models, but this is because society’s description of a ‘healthy body’ has been drilled into as being size 6 and 6ft tall.” This societal attitude is changing though, she explains, “the body diversity movement is definitely happening, and this will change both our attitudes and the industry for the better.” She continued, “Brands and clients are using such a diverse range of models these days. Having a plus size and straight size is stupid – but I guess it’s just to make it easier for clients to find the appropriate model for what they need.” Perhaps most surprisingly, Yasmin reveals that the actual average size in her native Australia is 14, “Companies and brands are only just noticing this now, and realising the market potential. So even if it doesn’t happen for the body positivity movement, it will happen for the money.”

We also spoke to Madeleine Ours, a current model at State Management, who exclaimed that “The most common misconception is that people like to think it’s a compliment to say: ‘Oh, that’s crazy, you’re not plus size!’ It drives me nuts, because they are implying that being plus is a bad thing. I’m proud to be plus size.”

Whilst the emergence of plus size models has given women some hope for the future, the problem of unhealthy body standards continues to blight the modelling world, and the lives of young women in general. As Bebe Rexha, the American singer who was told that she was “too big” as a size 8, recently said, “What you are saying to all of the women in the world who are size eight and above is that they’re not beautiful.” We know that’s not true, now it’s time for the modelling industry to know it too.  


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