In the wake of sexual misconduct revelations against Harvey Weinstein last October, 31-year-old model Cameron Russell took aim against rampant sexual harassment within the fashion industry by encouraging models to share their experiences of abuse on Instagram under the hashtag #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse.
A leading voice of Model Mafia – a community of over 200 models fighting to effect change in fashion – the Columbia graduate posted many of those stories on her own Instagram, after being direct-messaged by models (some teenagers) who wished to remain anonymous.
Her feed has since become a powerful record of abuse and led to luxury giants LVMH and Kering drawing up charters to safeguard the wellbeing of models.
Here, in an exclusive letter for PORTER, Russell writes to the fashion industry about moving forward responsibly.
Dear friends in fashion,
For as long as I’ve been a model, the highest praise has been, “She’ll do anything”.
Last November, the worst of what this means came to light. I posted an anonymous story on Instagram of sexual harassment that a friend and fellow model had sent me, and within hours hundreds more stories poured into my inbox. Along with dozens of other women in the industry, I spent the next 48 hours helping to make them public. This was a snapshot of the systemic harassment and abuse that takes place when “she’ll do anything” is a presumption and a pressure to never say no.
“She’ll do anything” is an isolating expectation on set, but it doesn’t take much research to realize that it’s not just a high-fashion catchphrase, but rather an ideology produced by an industry that relies on racism and sexism to maintain a large disposable workforce. 80 percent of the people working in the clothing industry are women, mostly women of color, but women and people of color are almost never in charge. And, no matter what city we’re talking about – New York, Paris, Milan, Dhaka, Phnom Penh – the majority of these women working in fashion do not make a livable wage. “She’ll do anything” is often because she doesn’t have a choice, at least not if she wants the job. According to one estimate, one in seven women employed in the formal economy work in the fashion supply chain.
This is not a #MeToo moment. Women have always known the violent consequences of patriarchy. Just as black lives have always mattered. And people of color have been surviving and finding ways to thrive for centuries within economic and political systems built on their oppression. Without seeing how the flaws in our own workplaces exist inside a larger picture, we doom ourselves to continue these brutal legacies. We start to evolve by changing the part of the system we can touch, getting rid of “she’ll do anything” and instead committing to holding each other in dignity, recognizing the wisdom and power of those who have always known these truths, and finding fresh ways to work together across gender, race, class, borders and difference – as equals.
Dwelling in the critical is hard because I know that I have benefited from my participation in fashion in more ways than one. And because I know so intimately all the people doing good work – the creative, committed, thoughtful people who exist throughout this industry. But instead of looking away, I remind myself that these immense challenges can cause me to despair or they can speak to the enormous potential of those of us willing to work another way.
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