​could an age limit of 18 protect model health?

i-D attended a government inquiry into model health led by Caroline Nokes MP last week, where models, agents, diversity activists and medical professionals all seemed to see the sense in raising the minimum catwalk age from 16 to 18.

by Charlotte Gush
08 December 2015, 1:45am

A government inquiry into the health of models led by Caroline Nokes MP was held in parliament last Tuesday, after a Change.org petition started by model Rosie Nelson, asking the government to create a law to protect models who are pressured to be sometimes dangerously thin -- she was told to get "down to the bone" -- attracted over 110,000 signatures. i-D attended the inquiry, where models, model agents from Models 1 and MiLK, diversity campaigner Caryn Franklin, Equity models' union representative Dunja Knezevic and medical professionals all gave evidence.

Ahead of the debate, it seemed that there were two options on the table for protecting model health: a minimum BMI limit, mirroring legislation in France and Israel, and codes of conduct in Spain and Italy; and regular health checks (every three - six months) for models, as suggested by Rosie Nelson. Instead, by the end of the evidence panels, a third option had emerged: simply raising the minimum age for models from 16 to 18. This idea won support from every corner, including from the Models 1 agents, who had sought to minimise the scale of the problem. Models 1 managing director John Horner said that in 15 years he's only seen two girls who were unhealthily thin; unfortunately the agents did not stay for the models' panel, when Rosie Nelson spoke about a model who attempted to survive on popcorn alone and Dunja Knezevic described queues of anorexic models at shows with lanugo hair, "fur all over their bodies, what the body produces to keep warm when there is no fat left" -- a sign of an advanced eating disorder.

The issue of age regulation was mentioned early in the inquiry by Caroline Nokes MP: "If I wanted to be controversial, I'd tell you that we've got a government that says that you have to be in either education, employment or training until you're 18 years old," she said, asking the model agents, "Could the average 16 - 18 year old model be regarded as being in full-time employment?". "Not full time, no. By no stretch of the imagination," John Horner of Models 1 answered, adding that, "They will work semi-regularly, some luckier than others". Equity Models' Network representative and former model Dunja Knezevic picked this issue up again later in the inquiry, saying, "It is illegal what they're doing at the moment. It would just be regulating it, and bringing [the industry] to a legal standard -- we're not asking for much, except for them to obey the law".

Knezevic also explained why raising the age would not only make the industry more legally compliant, but would address the problem fashion has with expecting models to be far below the average weight for their height. Speaking about the very young girls working long hours as 'fit models', because they are cheaper than older models, she said, "[Age] is a deciding factor in size, because it tells you the proportions that these models have to be. If you're 14, your waist is similar in size to your hips; so, no matter how slim you are, when you're 18, your BMI could be lower than the little girl that they fit the clothes on, but you'll never be able to fit it". "It's such a simple thing that could change," she said of increasing the minimum age to 18, adding that it, "would have amazing repercussions for the public, for the models themselves, for the industry; it's the easiest legislation to bring in, just to protect children".

Although the current minimum age for models on the London Fashion Week catwalk is 16, Anna Shillinglaw from MiLK management explained that it is usual to develop models from much earlier. Shillinglaw said that although she thinks, "16 is a good age to start developing them and start doing tests at weekends," and that "anything younger than that is a bit too young," she does admit taking on younger girls. "You get sent images from 12 year olds," she explains, "Sometimes when you scout these girls, they're 12 but they're already 5 ft 10 and amazing, so I think 16 is maybe a good age to start, [but] we do take a model on for development before that".

Nokes later questioned the panel of medical professionals about this practice, and they explained that at such a young age, these girls have not yet gone through puberty, so their bodies haven't fully developed and notably their hips haven't developed. "The average age for a girl to start going through puberty in this country is 11.5," GP Dr Ellie Cannon explained. "The age issue is so crucial because [the agents] -- even if they're not getting those girls to work, they're getting them into the mindset -- they're choosing the bodies of girls, girls who haven't had hip development. You don't go through hip development until you've had your growth-spurt," she added, and when Nokes asked her to explain when that happens, she said, "That's one of the last effects of puberty actually… So, at 12, right at the beginning of puberty, you have no idea what sort of hips that girl is going to have".

Size 16 model Hayley Hasselhoff, daughter of David Hasselhoff who was there to support her at the inquiry, explained that it was different for 'plus size' models, but that she had seen the issue of growing hips be a problem for her friends. "I started out when I was 14, but I was a 'plus size' model, so I got the better end of it I guess. I got to be told that I was beautiful the way I was, when I was growing into my figure; but I had friends who started when they were 14 and then they grew into their hips and their curves, and their agencies would say to them, 'What are you doing? Are you slacking off here?'. It's like, 'No, I'm growing! I'm becoming a woman, it's just what's happening'," she told MPs, adding that, "They feel that they have to go to unhealthy lengths to follow their dream. You tell a 14 year old girl, 'You could be a model if you went down to the bone,' they'd probably do so, because they want to follow their dream".

Raising the minimum age to 18 would mean that models start working having already gone through puberty, with hips that are fully or almost fully developed. This would almost certainly increase the average hip measurement of models and, in turn, likely increase the sample size, which, despite widespread acceptance that it is a problem, is the kind of thing that it is impossible to legislate for. Asked whether the sample size should be bigger, Karen Diamond of Models 1 said, "Yes. The sample size should be bigger," explaining that the hip measurement in New York, Paris and Milan is 34", but that British designers are "more forgiving," allowing 35". Caroline Nokes noted that a London catwalk producer had recently told her it was actually 33", a UK size 4, US size 0.

Aside from naturally forcing the sample size measurements to increase, a second positive aspect to raising the minimum age to 18 was identified by several speakers: the models will be more mature and more aware of their rights, empowering them to reject unhealthy pressure, wherever it may come from, and exploitative working practices. Dunja Knezevic explained how the exploitation of younger models can set the unhealthy ball rolling: "The fit models are usually the younger girls… they get them younger because they stand there for about 10-12 hours -- a lot of girls won't do that; they pay them much less -- a lot of the girls over 18 won't do that; and they want them extremely small; and their proportions are warped, compared to what our proportions would be, because we're women, you know, actually developed," she said, explaining that, "They're using these girls, who are 14, 15 years old, because they're cheap labour, and they make the clothes on them and that's where it starts. It's great for the agencies, it's great for the designers… they can keep using 14 year old girls from Siberia, it works for them".

"For me, the most sensible issue here is the age issue," dietician Marcela Fiuza agreed, speaking on the final panel. "I think the age [limit] is the best suggestion that I've heard here, because of a physical-puberty point of view, the shape and size of a woman's body, but also for empowerment". Lorna Garner of eating disorder charity Beat added her backing, saying "The additional effect of [raising the minimum age to 18] goes far beyond eating disorders. Just the exploitation of the girls who are under 18, the situations that they're in, and the sexualisation in the images… I think there's a lot to be gained from just protecting those under the age of 18. Not just the appearance thing, but everything else to do with empowerment and the gender issues really".

While speaking to the panel of model agents, who warned that the international nature of the fashion industry would make any legislation difficult to enforce, Caroline Nokes asked, "Could it work: if Britain were to say, 'Right, blanket ban, nobody under 18,' what lengths would designers, casting agents, agencies go to, to bring in a 14 year old from, I don't know, Israel?". "Well, I hope it would be policed," Karen Diamond, director of Models 1, answered, explaining that, "When the minimum age of 16 was brought in, everybody supported that and thought it was a great idea, and the BFC do spot-checks backstage -- the girls have to have copies of their passports, and I don't believe anyone has breached it, because I don't think anybody thought it would be a good idea to do so, and to be honest, I think if it went to 18, it would be a similar result". "There was talk of 18 being a minimum in New York," she continued, noting that, "Certainly, from the agents' perspective, nobody thought that was a bad idea".

"I never expected age to be the answer," Nokes mused toward the end of the inquiry, adding that, "Suddenly, the more people you speak to, the more obvious it becomes. I had one model explain this to me: every year, there'll be 10,000 girls imported from Siberia, who will be 15, 16, and anybody who's over 18, who's found their voice and is a little more assertive, who maybe has a centimeter wider hips, suddenly becomes disposable. This is an industry that is using women as disposable commodities".

"All parties have to be involved in this debate, and everybody needs to take responsibility for their own element of what is very clearly a problem," Lorna Garner said in conclusion, "And I think that the fashion industry, all those people involved in the fashion industry, they all have a social responsibility -- we all have it... So I would really very much like to see that we don't find ourselves in an adversarial stance, that everybody is involved in the discussion in a collaborative way, so that we can get to a place where we are genuinely all interested in the mental health and physical health of our young people". After hours of evidence from experts from within the fashion industry and outside it, it seems the way to do that may be as simple as raising the minimum age from 16 to 18.


Text Charlotte Gush
Photography Mainstream

Eating Disorders
size matters
Caryn Franklin
charlotte gush
models 1
model health
caroline nokes
dunja knezevic
government inquiry
john horner