Sex, Drugs and Dieting: Deviance in the Modeling Industry
Deviant subcultural behavior can take place in various societal groups, including professions such as modelling. Behavior that can be considered deviant within this community includes extreme dieting through unhealthy means along with appetite-suppressing substances (Mears, 2011, p.91), consumption of alcohol and drugs (Wheeler, 2016), and loose sexual behavior (Ridley, 2012), which can aggravate into the treatment of sex as a means of market exchange (Mears, 2011, p. 243). In general, the modeling industry externally projects ideals of perfection and deviance is not commonly associated with it. Such patterns are publicly repressed and must remain in the private sphere to not damage the glamorous image which fashion presents. From a subcultural point of view this dichotomy makes the patterns of deviance in the modeling community an interesting subject of study.
This paper will analyze the formation of deviant social norms in the modelling community through strain theory and the theory of differential association. The deviant social norms will be classified into three patterns: dietary habits, sexuality and substance abuse. This research strives to understand to what extent they are a product of a common condition of models and how they are embodied in norms reinforced through the community itself. A semi-structured interview (for Interview Guide see Appendix A; for interview transcript see Appendix B) was conducted with a female informant (further referred to as Eve), who has been part of the modeling community since the age of 14. Eve’s position as a former model improves the construct validity of the study, since she was open and critical about the character of the industry. Selection was done through convenience sampling, which is a form of non-probability sampling resulting from the accessibility of the respondent.
The modeling industry includes a variety of actors and stakeholders such as clients, photographers or modeling agency personnel who share common norms and values. Models as such constitute a subgroup within the community (see Figure 1). The emergence and transmission of norms needs to consider the behavior within the whole community due to the integration of their work in producing fashion (see Figure 2). Therefore, while the paper will focus on the patterns of deviant behavior in the modeling community, the norms and values later described will refer to those of the whole industry.
Figure 1 The modeling community is a subgroup in a bigger subculture of the modelling industry (see also Mears, 2011, p. 6).
Figure 2 Production World behind the Look (Mears, 2011, p. 8)
Figure 3 Merton’s typology of behavior (Downes, Rock & McLaughlin, 2016, p.98).
Cohen (1955) provides an extension to this theory through his analysis of status frustrations in delinquent subcultures. His research focuses on how a disadvantaged position explains the emergence of deviant conduct (Terpstra, 2006; Downes, 2013, p.1). His theory, as described by Downes, Rock & McLaughlin (2016, p.126), looks at the functions and problem-solving character of deviant behavior in subcultures, showing how normative conflict of shared problems in subcultures, incompatible with the mainstream culture, is resolved by borrowing and adjusting elements from the mainstream culture. Mears’s (2011) study of the modeling industry suggests that models face unattainable goals, inducing deviant innovation within their subculture (Merton, 1968, p.230). She classifies modeling as a bad job with uncertain income on a contractual-basis, in an unstable and unpredictable market, where only a few top models succeed, while the majority struggle in an oversupplied highly competitive environment. To achieve success, they need to portray an unattainable abstract perfection, which leads models to make use of alternative, sometimes deviant measures.
The theory of differential association (TDA) explains the cultural transmission of deviant behavior through learning from interaction with other people (Herman, 1995, p.67). The theory explains that due to frequency, duration, priority and intensity of social relations in the subculture, individuals develop alternative understandings of concepts from the mainstream culture (Downes, Rock & McLaughlin, 2016, p. 62). Regarding the transmission of social norms, Mears (2011) suggests that the excitement, thrill and obligation all create pressure on individual models to conform to the ideals demanded by the industry. This means that models who wish to succeed have high levels of willingness to learn the existing norms. The success in the industry is also strongly linked to knowing the right people, resulting in the importance of the socializing aspects of the career. The two theories can be analyzed together to explain the emergence and transmission of deviant behavior in the modeling subculture.
through ST and TDA
The following analysis will address three observed patterns of deviance - dietary habits, sexuality, and substance abuse (drugs and alcohol) - in order to understand the underlying societal factors which induce and facilitate their presence and abundance.
The sexually deviant behavior present in the modeling community includes extensive normalization of sexuality and sexual practices. In practice this presents itself by promiscuity, polyamory, orgies and non-publicized treatment of sex as a means of transaction. Eve’s description of sexual deviance in modeling, relative to mainstream society, suggests that both theories can explain different sexually deviant behavior. ST can partially explain the common condition of models in a highly competitive market that leads to loose sexual behavior and the use of sex as a means of exchange. The value of bodily integrity of young models, typically around 13-14 years old, is diminished through the physical scrutiny of models in their daily castings where their identity is reduced to their body. This condition can be viewed both as a selection criterion, which in a highly competitive market only permits sexually liberal models to advance in their careers, and as an established attitude to which models are inclined to adapt. In an industry where models’ body and sexuality are treated as commodities and where an overt sexuality is appreciated, conservative attitudes tend to be rejected. This change in behavior to various extents functions as an innovation of means to achieve success in the fashion industry to better integrate into the community as a model. Nevertheless, ST does not fully explain why the overt sexual practices appear in the first place, particularly when it does not have a direct influence on the quality of the work in the fashion industry.
The TDA can partially explain model’s internalization of loose sexual norms through the liberal environment and social pressure. Eve said she was initially shocked about the open attitude towards sex and its prevalence in the industry, including the abundance of orgies. Over time, the exposure and liberal attitude at a young age led her to normalize this behavior. She described the environment as a “very open social lifestyle where people go out a lot, and it is normal to have multiple partners and meet a lot of people.” Her words suggest that the sexual behavior among models becomes associated with the social outgoing modeling lifestyle, rather than the exclusively private domain common in the mainstream society. “In modeling sex is something very likable. People do not find it embarrassing to talk about or to engage in, it’s almost encouraged to be very open about it and to be very active in it.”
The presence of sexual transactions in the modeling industry can only be explained through the integration of mechanisms from both theories. Eve described it as “very common for either photographers or designers to ask for something more than you came for, in order to get better pictures, or more of them, get them for free or get a job instead of some other girl.” Such sexual transactions from the perspective of ST function as a form of innovative means to achieve success if the conventional methods of going to castings are not enough. Even when models reject similar offers, the exposure over long periods of time from a young age to an environment where sex is openly discussed, and sexual transactions are tolerated even in an overtly taboo form changes the perception of sex among models. “It is not really perceived as anything special or anything outrageous…because it has such a long history and these kind of transactions…if you do or if you know about someone doing it you do not really raise an eyebrow.” This suggests that the fashion industry plays a substantial role in socializing models into the sexually deviant subculture.
Deviant Dietary Behavior
Deviant dietary behavior among models includes excessive dieting, drug and tobacco intake to suppress appetite or anorexia. “There is a lot of pressure, so the girls really restrain themselves from eating. They constantly check their weight; they are nervous, tired, their bodies are completely shutting down because they are simply not eating and they’re substituting it with drugs.” Such behavioral patterns can be understood through the unattainable physical requirements models face. ST can explain this through innovative means models use to try to achieve desired bodily measurements. The culture of dieting is distinct with its focus on bodily mechanical functions that can be regulated as a market commodity. Eve described how agencies set measurement requirements for their models, which in the case of Eve was even included in her contract. Were she to gain weight she would “have to pay a huge fee.” This can create particular stress for girls who are naturally gaining weight when they are maturing. She also noted that she has never experienced someone being “skinny enough,” which confirms the unattainability of the desired physique.
In general, the unhealthy deviant methods cannot be passed on through the agency due to the legal restrictions in workspace. Instead, agencies provide models with desired measurements, without much complementary oversight or guidance on how to achieve them. Eve described that “the agency is literally just your employer … that’s where your relationship ends. They do not care about where you live, how much money you spend or what you eat …there is absolutely no control at all.” In contrast to the lack of supervision is the facts that “the agencies pressure you to look a certain way and to lose weight.” This treatment internalizes the notion that conforming to physical requirements is the necessary objective to succeed, regardless of the means. Additionally, it leaves empty space for models to seek out individually or within their community the most effective methods to lose weight regardless of the repercussions on their well-being. While Eve did not refer to transmission of dieting practices among models, it could be hypothesized that social ties among models constitute the basis for their dieting behavior.
Alcohol and Drug Use
Alcohol and drug use are common in the fashion industry. They constitute an aspect of the culture of partying which is widespread in this community: “I went to parties where I could see trays of drugs, people walking home with them and everybody was doing it”. Drugs also relate to the dieting habits as they suppress appetite and relive the anxiety models experience from hunger. Socialization at parties, full of young independent people aspiring for glamorous lifestyle, which often involve drugs, emerges as an innovative method to gather recognition. Eve described how networking and knowing the right people is essential for success. From her experience, the agency incentivized her to attend many events to “get her face out there.” ST thus provides and explanation for the culture of partying and drug intake in relation to dieting. It however does not fully clarify how substance abuse forms, since it only indirectly links to the success in the fashion industry through the need for socialization. It might not constitute a form of innovation to achieve success, but rather temporary rejection of both societal goals and available means to relieve the daily anxiety, leading to subcultural retreatism. This opens additional questions about whether models practice both deviant adaptations simultaneously or which one prevails.
TDA is better at explaining the spread of the deviant norms. Transmission of this behavior, according to Eve, through social interactions takes place mostly through party promoters, who bring models to clubs and typically ensure accessibility to drugs and alcohol. She noted that upon entering the community it is difficult to isolate yourself from drugs because they are so abundant. Eve did not regard herself being notably pressured into drug or alcohol consumption, but she acknowledged it can take place in some forms. Minor pressure can be exerted from the models themselves through picking on girls who are “so innocent.” Eve also noted there can be some pressure from photographers through their comments such as: “maybe if we take drugs, we can take better pictures, which wouldn’t be so stiff and unnatural because you do loosen up when you take drugs.” The influence of similar comments should not be downplayed in such a competitive industry. Overall the abundance of alcohol and drugs in the modeling environment normalizes them and creates new connotations for young models, as TDA describes. Due to the importance of socialization and open lifestyle TDA and ST can together explain the continuous transmission of these norms among new models.
ST and TDA successfully explain aspects of deviant behavior in the modeling community. ST shows how the treatment of sex as a commodity, extreme dieting and drug and alcohol consumption are forms of innovative deviant adaptations of the models to their unattainable aspirations to succeed in the highly competitive market. ST appears insufficient to explain why the deviant norms emerge in the first place in cases where they do not provide means to achieve success in the industry. The TDA is able to describe how social relations within the modeling subculture and industry induce a loose sexual attitude, drug and alcohol consumption and values about bodily integrity. Young age, the context of the profession and high competitiveness appear to amplify both the emergence and the transmission of the deviant norms. The subculture which young models become part of exerts substantial force in shaping their attitudes and behaviors. Consequently, the theories effectively interpret the patterns of deviance in the social context of the modeling subculture. In this paper I provided an overview of the dominant patterns of deviance in the modeling community and explained how ST and TDA can explain their emergence and transmission. Further research can focus on exploring how the involvement of different actors facilitates individual patterns of deviance, and why norms such as substance abuse emerge within the scope of the ST. Insights from this paper, for example that the lack of oversight by the modeling agency leads to unhealthy dietary practices, can be used to develop strategies to safeguard well-being of young models.
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