Poor Models. Seriously.

As the designers, stylists and editors of Fashion Week pack up to leave New York City today, one group of participants isn’t going anywhere: hundreds of young models, the surplus labor of the fashion industry.

Ten years ago, I was one of them. When I told my dad excitedly that I would be walking in a fashion show — which paid in dresses instead of money — he summed it up succinctly: “That and a buck will get you a cup of coffee.”

Fashion Week, despite bringing over $400 million to the city each year, is unprofitable work for most of the people wearing the designs. Because modeling is freelance work done on a per-project basis, models don’t receive benefits, have little control over the conditions of their work and never know when their next job is coming. They are arbitrarily selected and easily dismissed. And vast disparities exist in payments among models who do equivalent work; for the same show, top models can earn between $1,000 and $5,000, while others are not paid at all. Some models even work under arrangements that recall indentured servitude: they are in debt to their agencies for visa expenses, plane tickets, apartment rentals, even the cost of bike messengers who transport their portfolios to and from offices.

Fashion is a glamorous industry, but rub off the sheen, and quite another scene emerges.

But should anyone feel bad for models? At the start of my first Fashion Week in New York, when I was 19, my agent advised me to dress to look as long and lean and possible, because “anorexia is in this season.” It was a joke; he laughed and so did I, but his words stayed with me when I returned to my undergraduate studies in gender and sociology. When I came across “The Beauty Myth” by Naomi Wolf, I winced at the passages on fashion models, an “elite corps deployed in a way that keeps 150 million American women in line.” She rightly lambasted the exaggerated silhouettes and prepubescent forms of high fashion. It was all the more offensive, she wrote, considering models’ “gross high pay,” and she added a crack about the challenges of being a paid beauty: “it’s really grueling under those hot lights.”

But sarcasm aside, for many models, it is grueling. Confronted with the huge successes of modeling’s winner-take-all market, most people miss the mass of losers. This is how glamour works: as a spell. Even the word glamour has magic roots, as a charm cast to transform appearances.

The truth is, modeling epitomizes the kind of precarious job that, since the 1990s, has been spreading from the informal labor market into traditionally more secure workplaces, like the retail and service industries and my own occupational home, the university, where contracted adjunct instructors are replacing tenure-track professor lines.

(I feel lucky to have a job with a future, however. I knew modeling wasn’t a long-term career when, at the age of 19, I was told to tell casting agents I was 18. “We are meat,” a Parisian male model told me matter-of-factly in a recent interview, “and it gets bad as it gets old.”)

Decades of critiquing representations of bodies in fashion have not changed what we see on the catwalk; reforming the conditions backstage just might. Empowering models as workers could potentially help them stand up against other aspects of the industry, like unhealthy expectations about dieting.

Sara Ziff, a model working with Fordham University’s Fashion Law Institute, has formed a nonprofit group called the Model Alliance that hopes to give models a platform to organize for workplace protections. At a minimum, it would be a space for them to share information about how much jobs pay and agencies charge. Models are so disorganized as a work force that, when a class-action lawsuit brought by models against their agencies was settled at $22 million in 2005, the court couldn’t find enough models to claim the damages.

The judge donated an unclaimed sum of $6 million to treatment centers for women with, among other problems, eating disorders. It’s hard to miss the irony. We shouldn’t miss the opportunity to change the terms of fashion’s labor, either.

By Ashley Mears, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University and the author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model.

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