Thursday, April 11, 2013

Never Thin Enough? Thoughts About What We Can Sell in the Labor Market.

Content Warning:  Body Images and Anorexia

Joan Smith in the UK Independent reviews The Vogue Factor, a book about the eating requirements in the modeling industry.  Or,  rather, its  not-eating requirements.

I haven't read the book but the picture attached to Smith's article stuck in my mind.  Here it is:

Who knows how representative the model in the picture is.  I'd guess she is more malnourished than most models.  What I cannot get off my mind is the possibility that her liver is visible in that picture.  I think it is, and anyone that thin is in dire danger.

Smith writes:
Imagine a factory where the employees are regularly being starved.
Some are so desperate with hunger that they pick up tissues from the floor and stuff them into their mouths, while a few become so weak that they have to be admitted to hospital and put on a drip. Any industry which treated workers so badly would be targeted by undercover reporters. Photographs of emaciated workers would cause an outcry, questions would be asked in parliament and the factory would be closed down.

But that doesn't happen in the fashion industry.  Not really, despite all the PR campaigns in that direction, and we all know why:  The extreme thinness is an occupational requirement.

This topic is an octopus with a thousand (thin) legs, all of which are worth following.  I have written about the deep reasons for female body modifications before and certainly will write about them again.  The way our bodies are never good enough, never pretty enough, never satisfactory, the way we ARE our bodies, in far too many aspects of our lives and the way we end up having at most a ceasefire with them.  The "we" being a literary construct here.

But this time I want to write about something different:  The question how to react when jobs require the workers to engage in quite unhealthy activities but when the jobs are not in themselves coercive, forced labor or extremely poorly paid.  Do we have empathy for the fashion models who appear to go along with the risky bargains which are expected of them?  Do we have empathy for those professional athletes who take dangerous substances in order to grow muscle mass far above and beyond the bearing capacity of their joints and muscles?  And how should we react to the well-paid executive officer who is expected to spend sixteen hours working every day of his or her year?

In some ways all this is about what kinds of contracts people can make with each other.  If a firm wants to pay a worker well for that worker's loss of health, is such a job contract acceptable to us?  Is there a difference between the wealthy over-working executive and a teenager starting a modeling career?  What about the indication that professional football players, for example, tend to die younger than otherwise similar men?  What can we sell in the labor markets?

The required thinness of fashion models may have more serious consequences because these women are "models" of how desirable women should look.  In that sense the health dangers their job involves affect not only themselves but countless numbers of young girls.  Still, to some extent similar dangers exist for young boys and girls who wish to emulate professional athletes.