THE BLOG

When Is a Model Not a Model?

27/05/2015 11:37 BST | Updated 26/05/2016 10:59 BST

As the owner of a womenswear brand, I get to decide who wears our clothes in our advertising campaigns.

It's a fortunate yet responsible position to be in. Fortunate, because I get to determine exactly how the brand is presented. Responsible, because I feel the weight of honesty to every customer who looks at the images we publish.

Body image has become an issue of growing concern. Around 10million women in the UK say they 'feel depressed' about the way they look. This is reportedly fuelled by unrepresentative and ubiquitous images of perfectly airbrushed women with bodies that are unattainable for most.

In recent weeks the press has been awash with articles about skinny models. In early April MPs in France's Lower House approved a law to ban the use of models deemed to be excessively thin. As part of this, model agencies that break this law could face fines of up to €75,000 and a six-month jail term. Approval by the Senate is now needed to bring it into force.

The MP who proposed the bill had previously stated that the thinness threshold be set at a BMI of 18. A healthy BMI is considered to be between 18.5 and 24.9.

This law follows similar such actions in Spain which has regulations barring fashion show models with a BMI below 18.5. Italy insists on medical certificates and also imposes an age requirement of at least 16. Israel similarly imposes a BMI limit along with a requirement to label media photos that have been re-touched. There is no such BMI limit in the UK or the US.

The concern is that ultra-thin models engender and compound body image concerns and this in turn is leading to eating disorders. In the UK around 725,000 people are affected by eating disorders of which almost 90% are girls and women. Related hospital admissions are rising at around 7% per year.

These are worrying statistics and only serve to reinforce the obligation I feel to choose models that won't make my customers feel bad about themselves.

How customers feel about themselves after looking at advertisements has been a topic of fierce debate following the bikini-wearing model in the 'Are you beach body ready?' campaign. Thousands have signed an online petition, posters have been defaced and a protest was organised for 2 May in Hyde Park.

There are a lot of women are clearly unhappy with how some images may make them feel. They are asking for proper representation.

Deciding on the choice of models for my brand is not a decision I have ever wanted to take lightly. But where to start?

What I knew was that I didn't want young girls Photoshopped to within an inch of their lives with expressions that made them look dead behind the eyes.

But first I had to understand the world of modelling. Fortunately my e-commerce manager had previously worked as a model agent at Storm. He inducted into a new world, one in which the level of scrutiny and appraisal seems relentless. It made me wonder now why anyone would even want to be a model.

He taught me all about portfolios (or books) and castings. When we eventually did call in some models I half expected to see a line of goddesses queued up outside the door. Instead what I saw pretty, but not gorgeous girls (and I stress that they were girls and not women - they were teenagers) who were tall but not nearly as striking as their photographs had suggested.

When we measured them it also became apparent that their height made their dimensions appear narrower. Clearly Photoshop plus height equals lots of potential and not a little hoodwinking. There are very few women blessed with the genes of Christy Turlington.

But the dawning of realisations wasn't going to solve my problem. I still needed a model and one that would properly marry aspiration with honesty.

My first choice was to have the clothes take centre stage. More bluntly we wouldn't show faces. The reason for this was not only because I didn't think these teenagers actually represented our customer but also because what they presented at a shoot was not a person but rather a persona. They 'switched off'. It was as though the individual disappeared and a 'model' emerged. Poses were performed as though by automatons, expressions were blank. It was even more dispiriting to see them deny food bar a few salad leaves. One even became delirious towards the end of the day.

But really the answer was obvious. We would choose real women. And not only would they be non-models but, if we were to show their faces, then we would tell their stories and celebrate their achievements. No more anonymous mannequins.

Our 'faces' come from a range of backgrounds - one is a freelance PR, one is a clown, one is a speech therapist and actress, two are dancers (one ballet, one krump).

They range in size from 8 to 12 but we don't scrunitinise their bodies because we know they look good. And that is why we don't transform them with endless hours of re-touching.

But it is the diversity of their backgrounds that gives them such distinct appeal. It is also heartwarming to see genuine friendships developing among these wonderful women.

When I look at their photos or videos I have no doubt that what I have found is a faithful and sincere representation of the aesthetic and spirit of our brand.

Remarkably though this seems to have thrown people. Often I am asked 'Are they actually models?' - a question mostly posed by women and which always seems to carry a certain amount of disapproval.

It is ironic that some think they have been duped by not being shown 'real' models. But it doesn't worry me. Most people don't like change and acceptance will take time.

What does worry me though is the amount of food (or rather chocolates, crisps, nuts and sandwiches) I have to buy for shoots. Kate Moss famously said that "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels." I would urge her to watch this and then come back to me with her opinion.