Life, Photography, Writing

Does the fashion photography industry reflect the diversity of modern society?

This is an essay I wrote for college, but I wanted to share it here as well as I feel this is an important topic that needs to be discussed more. Feel free to chat to me in the comments. (sources below)


Diversity is often a topic of discussion these days, as the internet has allowed us to connect with people all around the world and better call things like racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism out, but we still have a long way to go. The fashion and beauty industries have specifically been under a lot of scrutiny over the last 5 years with the rise of the body positivity movement. There have been countless other movements like this over the last decade which are pushing for the fashion industry to include more diversity on every front. We have started to see some big changes with a lot more BIPOC being represented, but I think we still have a long way to go.

 

Through my research, I have found that there is still a significant imbalance in representation and diversity in the fashion photography industry. I went through a selection of fashion magazines – Vogue, Vanity Fair, Glamour – and tallied up the models into categories. My sample size was 763 models counted in total and of them 506 of them (66.32%) we thin, white and able bodied: Your standard image of a model. The other categories I used were ‘Black’ (18.48%), ‘Asian’ (3.54%), ‘White-Passing BIPOC’ (8.52%), ‘Disabled’ (0%), ‘Visible Difference’ (0.13%), ‘Plus Size’ (0.52%), ‘Trans/Gender non-conforming’ (1.05%), ‘Old’ (1.44%). I repeated this exercise with multiple different sources such as the first page of google search results, Fashion photographers Instagrams/Websites and Bill Boards in shops. The percentages vary slightly, but they all show the same imbalance with thin, white, abled bodies being at the forefront of fashion and modelling. I also observed that while there are slightly more BIPOC in the fashion industry, they rarely get the top jobs and aren’t openly displayed. They may appear in some magazines, but almost never on billboards out in the open, which means that while there are more BIPOC models about 70% of them still aren’t being seen by the general public, which means the images put out to the public are still incredibly biased towards white, thin, cis and abled people. This suggest that while we are beginning to see some more diversity in the industry, there is still a large bias against anyone who doesn’t fit into the thin, white, cis, abled bubble and companies are still reluctant to use more diverse models.

Another observation I’ve made through my research on representation is that there are minorities within the minorities. Some of the categories I chose were based on skin colour, body size, visible differences (skin conditions/limb differences), disability and gender presentation. While we still have a long way to go on all fronts, there is a clear imbalance is which minorities are getting prioritised. People with different skin colours or ethnicities are being far more widely represented than anyone with disabilities or visible differences. In my research I didn’t find a single disabled model in any of the places I looked. While I managed to find a few trans/gender non-conforming models they were on the ‘milder’ end of the spectrum, so that while there was a trans woman and several models who wore gender non-specific clothes, they did so in an ‘acceptable’ way. This is a theme I’ve seen across all minorities in that they are included, but only in a way that still fits the norm. So there may be a plus size model, but they are still accepted because they’re curvy in the right places and still have a flat stomach or they may include a model with a hidden disability, but only on the condition that they are still thin and don’t shout about their disability.

You also have to take into account intersectionality when talking about representation. People who only fall into one of the minority categories are significantly more likely to see themselves represented, but those who fall into two or more have little to no chance. For example, a thin, cis, abled black women is much more likely to get a modelling job that a plus size black women. Likewise, trans people who ‘pass’ as their gender are much more likely to get chosen than those that don’t because companies don’t want to upset audiences by straying too far from their safe social acceptable boxes.

 

Although we are beginning to see some more diverse models, there is still very little diversity behind the scenes, which brings up a lot of other issues. I did some quick google searches and all but one of the fashion photographers I found were white and the majority were also male. Photography is a very male dominated field in general, but it is interesting that it’s still the case even in an area like fashion which is generally considered to be a ‘girly interest’. This is not a new trend because we have been aware for a long time that although a lot of things women generally like are considered silly or boring, when it comes to doing them professionally, it is always a male dominated field. Chefs are an excellent example of this because for centuries the kitchen has supposedly been a ‘women’s place’, but as soon as it is paid work, suddenly women don’t belong. This means that not only is there a racial bias, but a gender bias as well, which is a huge issue in representation in the industry for multiple different reasons.

The first is that there is clearly little to no diversity when it comes to the actual fashion photographers. We may be making some progress in diversifying the modelling side of fashion, but the people behind the camera are almost exclusively white and mostly male as well. It’s unsurprising to me that the people behind the scenes would still be mostly white and male because they are of course behind the scenes, so the general public doesn’t see much of what is going on. It is far easier to push for more representation in a position like modelling because models are public figures and have their faces plastered on billboards for everyone to see, so the diversity (or lack thereof it) is much easier to spot. In recent years we’ve seen women being given more of a chance to make their name in bigger photography industries and there are now a fair few women working for big fashion brands; however, this breakthrough only applies to white, abled women. This relates back to the intersectionality that I mentioned earlier – how one person can fit more than one minority – because while white women have made quite a lot of progress as fashion photographers, women of other races and abilities are still being left behind. This is also a recurring trend throughout history, the most well-known case being women gaining the right to vote. It is fairly common knowledge that women the right to vote in 1918, but what history often fails to recognise is that many women were still denied that right because of their class. Class and Race often overlap, meaning that while it wasn’t an official racial discrimination, many women of colour were still unable to vote until 1928 and after. (Voting Counts)

The clear lack of diversity among the photographers themselves and the accompanying stylists is of course an issue in itself because it shows that despite centuries of effort, women, BIPOC, Disabled people and members of the LGBTQIA+ are still being excluded. A huge issue that I have both picked up on myself and have read a lot about online is the white-washing of BIPOC in the media. This is a particular issue in the fashion photography industry, although I’m sure it leaks into other industries too. When it comes to the media whitewashing is defined as “to alter… in a way that favours, features, or caters to white people” (Merriam-Webster). Whitewashing is usually talked about in relation to film when white/light skinned actors are cast to play black/dark-skinned roles, but the practice is also prevalent in photography. Modelling agencies and Photographers will often pick black models who are still fairly light skinned. Lighter skinned black people are much more likely to featured, whereas dark skinned models are truly few and far between, especially in more day to day fashion. You’ll see the odd very dark skinned model here and there in high fashion photography because it is considered to be an ‘extreme’ or ‘controversial’ look like high fashion itself.

Black people are often further whitewashed when being photographed by the lighting that is used. Whether or not it is deliberate or because the photographer is inexperienced in photographing people with darker skin tones is unknown, but most fashion photographers use a lot of lighting to properly light up their models, but the lighting hey use for light skin tones isn’t appropriate for darker skin tones. The bright lights will, more often than not, lighten the model’s skin tone, so when you are already choosing to use a black model with a lighter brown skin tone, it unfortunately means that the model appears to be white. The only give away is often the model’s hair or other features that are more distinctly black. I would like to believe that this is because the photographer is merely inexperienced on the best light for their subject, but you don’t make it that far up the career ladder being ignorant to such a simple thing. I would suggest that some of the blame is on the lack of diversity involved in the shoot. When the photographer, make-up artists, hair-stylists, wardrobe and everyone else is white, they aren’t going to be aware of how to make anyone who looks different to them look their best. If there was more diversity in the industry behind the scenes, then this would change significantly; however, I believe part of the problem is also that we still live in a society with a lot of biases, especially towards those with darker skin tones, which is why whitewashing in photos goes unpunished and only the most whitewashed BIPOC make it onto billboards.

 

I also think it is important to note that while we have made some big steps in the right direction towards diversity, we are still in the middle of the fight for diversity and not at the end. This is evidenced by the many people still fighting to be seen worldwide and the firsts that are still happening. Most BIPOC creatives don’t make it as far as working in the industry because we still live in a world that punishes darker skin tones. In a piece on how white dominated the fashion industry is (Annachiara Biondi, 2020) black students have expressed that they don’t know a single black teacher and that they feel vastly underrepresented. It is noted that in the UK, US and Europe many black students don’t feel welcome on campus because the staff are mostly if not all white and the curriculum is also white and western-centred, which many BIPOC don’t feel they can relate to. It is my belief that this lack of support and diversity within the education system is a huge factor in the lack of diversity in the fashion industry because BIPOC students aren’t given anywhere near the same amount of support that white students are.

In a similar article on Vogue’s website, Hayden Majajas talks about diversity in the fashion industry saying “In order to authentically respond to diversity, it has to become a part of how we operate as an industry and a company. It has to become systematic.” There are also countless other articles talking about all the firsts that are still going on: The first Transgender Woman to be signed to a major modelling agency (Insider, 2020), the first model with Vitaligo to join the Victoria Secret Angels or the first person with Down Syndrome to ever walk New York Fashion Week. These firsts have only happened within the last few years. For some they have paved the way for others to follow in their footsteps, for others they remain the first and only to have done it so far and for many they have yet to even been recognised. We are fighting for equality and diversity in the present tense, which I think is evidence enough that the fight is not over and that many people are still drastically underrepresented if they’re represented at all.

Many people argue that there is plenty of diversity within fashion photography because the percentages of minorities already exceed their percentage in the UK population, but not only is this incorrect, I also disagree with the idea that diversity within industry must match the population. If we look at the percentages I found in my research and compare them to the UK population you’ll find that some areas match up and others absolutely don’t. The average percentage for white people in fashion photography is about 70%, whereas 86% of the UK population is white and the average for black is about 15% compared to the 3.3% in the population. If you look at just the percentages then they do seem skewed; however, what you have to keep in mind is that every piece of media has been catered to white people for the last several centuries, so there is no shortage of content that white people can ‘relate’ to.  Just because an ethnic group is in the minority doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve to be celebrated. Many argue that they are being celebrated because of the statistics I’ve just shown, but they aren’t overly accurate because most don’t make it anywhere big and those that do are so whitewashed in both lighting and styling that they are unrecognisable. There are always going to be more white people in all industries because we are the majority, but we should also be making a considerable effort to include people of all other races and backgrounds and presenting them in a way that accentuates their differences instead of diminishing them. It is also my belief that you don’t have to share the same skin colour as someone else to relate to them and if we were surrounded by beauty and culture from all around the world in the first place then we would see each other as people first and our race second.

I also feel that it is important to bring to light the continued exclusion of disabled people in fashion photography. There are 66.65 Million people in the UK and 14.1 Million of them have a disability, which is 21.2%. That is a lot of people and yet in all my research I didn’t find a single disabled model or photographer in the industry. If you search for them specifically you can find some small disabled models on Instagram, but they are never included in big campaigns and definitely not in the likes of Vogue or Victoria Secret. Fatphobia is also still rife in the industry. The average woman in the UK is a size 16 and almost no one but models have Victoria Secret style bodies, so why are they advertised to us as the norm when they are as far from it as you can get?

 

In conclusion, although a lot of progress has been made over the last decade, it is my belief that we still have an incredibly long way to go. The fight for diversity in the media and specifically in the fashion industry is far from over as evidenced by the use of present tense when we talk about fighting for diversity and breaking into the industry, the amount of ‘firsts’ that are still happening and the clear biases that still exist when it comes to race, disability, size and gender.


Sources:

Biondi, A. (2020) ‘White staff and a white curriculum: Inside fashion education’, Vogue Business, 29 June. Available at: https://www.voguebusiness.com/fashion/white-staff-and-a-white-curriculum-inside-fashion-education (Accessed 26 August 2020).

Bridgeartists.com (No date) BRIDGE Artists. Available at: https://www.instagram.com/bridgeartists/ (Accessed 26 August 2020).

Diversity UK (No date) Diversity in the UK. Available at: https://diversityuk.org/diversity-in-the-uk/#:~:text=In%202018%20about%2013.8%25%20of,Minority%20Ethnic%20(BAME)%20background. (Accessed 31 August 2020).

Fox-Suliaman, J. (2020) ‘6 models on ableism, visibility and personal style’, Who What Wear, 1 August. Available at: https://www.whowhatwear.co.uk/disabled-fashion-models (Accessed 26 August 2020).

Glusac, M. (2019) ’10 models who are breaking barriers in the fashion industry’, Insider, 23 January. Available at: https://www.insider.com/models-breaking-barriers-in-fashion-industry-2019-1 (Accessed 26 August 2020).

Google (No date) Average body shape UK. Available at: https://www.google.com/search?q=average+body+shape+uk&safe=strict&sxsrf=ALeKk02AIDMbX8UaD7G3pIMVf8OY-RrE8w:1598865431477&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwitwdjwjcXrAhX4VRUIHRHcCngQ_AUoAXoECA0QAw&biw=958&bih=959 (Accessed 31 August 2020).

Guilbault, L. (2020) ‘Can diversity in fashion be systemic?’, Vogue Business, 14 July. Available at: https://www.voguebusiness.com/fashion/can-diversity-in-fashion-be-systemic (Accessed 26 August 2020).

Ivanova, T. (No date) ’21 famous fashion photographers you should know’, Expert Photography. Available at: https://expertphotography.com/famous-fashion-photographers/ (Accessed 26 August 2020).

Leal, N. (No date) ‘Women’s suffrage: Women of colour’, Voting Counts. Available at: https://votingcounts.org.uk/suffrage-women-of-colour (Accessed 26 August 2020).

McDowell, M. (2020) ‘Why VCs are backing gender-neutral fashion’, Vogue Business, 14 July. Available at: https://www.voguebusiness.com/fashion/vcs-backing-gender-neutral-fashion-re-inc-funding (Accessed 26 August 2020).

Samaha, B. (2020) ‘Artist Laetitia Ky on her hair-raising sculptures and collaborating with Marc Jacobs’, Harper’s Bazaar, 28 July. Available at: https://www.harpersbazaar.com/fashion/photography/a33405451/laetitia-ky-marc-jacobs-handbag-collection/ (Accessed 26 August 2020).

Webb, B. (2020) ‘Challenging a fatphobic industry to adapt’, Vogue Business, 17 July. Available at: https://www.voguebusiness.com/fashion/challenging-a-fatphobic-industry-to-adapt (Accessed 26 August 2020).

‘Whitewashing in film’ (2020) Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitewashing_in_film (Accessed 26 August 2020).

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