America’s Next Top Sociologist

A daylong photo shoot for Vogue pays only $150, women are like milk cartons, and other insights from the academic study of modeling.

Libby Copeland

Ashley Mears. Click image to expand.Ashley Mears wrote a sociological study of fashion models after being oneThere’s a long tradition among academics of embedding in an occupation to study it. In the middle of the last century, social psychologist Marie Jahoda worked in an English paper factory to learn about about the lives of factory girls. More recently, sociologist Loïc Wacquant studied boxers by becoming one, while Sudhir Venkatesh spent seven years with a gang in the Chicago projects. One academic worked as a cotton picker, another entered prison as an inmate.

Ashley Mears embedded as a model. Then an NYU grad student in sociology, Mears had an idea what she was in for. She’d modeled in college, and knew that she still met the narrow physical requirements for the job. But this time around, she took notes after walking runways and attending casting calls. She interviewed other models as well as the industry tastemakers who hire them–agents, designers, magazine editors. Her new book, Pricing Beauty, offers a mostly grim picture of what’s endured by those trying to make a living off their looks. Models are utterly dispensable, in Mears’ telling: They labor at the mercy of inscrutable bosses, lousy pay, and punishing physical requirements. And for most of them, that’s how the job will remain until they retire at the ripe old age of, say, 26.

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