The Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University gathered hundreds of legal experts, fashion industry stakeholders, designers, and lawyers of the future to discuss everything from the impacts of emerging economies on global trade to the future of intellectual property enforcement. There to talk about advertising, Photoshop, labor issues, false claims, and public health were community organizer Seth Matlins, photographer Adam Katz Sinding, computer scientist and Photoshop expert Eric Kee, law professor Barbara Pozzo, lawyer Annie M. Ugurlayan, and Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff.

Matlins, the founder of body-positive organization Off Our Chests, kicked things off with a call-to-arms against the advertising industry for promoting negative self esteem among (particularly) young girls and women. Matlins even raised the possibility of consumers suing brands that foster an unhealthy body image via their advertising, comparing the advertising industry to the National Football Association, which has been the targets of hundreds of lawsuits over head injuries. If the NHL bears a responsibility for players’ head injuries, asked Matlins, “what are the responsibilities of the fashion and beauty industries to their consumers?”

In Italy, explained the University of Milan’s Barbara Pozzo, advertising is strictly regulated because it is understood to be a form of communication that depends on access to public spaces and airwaves, and should therefore conform to commonly held norms. There are 49 separate provisions governing advertising, and special oversight is directed towards ads that target vulnerable groups like children. Ads have to be truthful, they have to not encourage violent or dangerous behaviors, and they also must adhere to more nebulous conditions — like respecting “human dignity,” and avoiding “vulgarity.” Professor Pozzo showed numerous examples of fashion ads that had been banned in Italy, including several high-fashion ads that sexualized violence against women.

In the U.S., explained Ugurlayan, the law holds that advertising claims must be truthful — and that claims are not exclusively verbal. (A photo of a model with eerily smooth skin, in an ad for wrinkle cream, is making a claim about the advertised product’s effectiveness.) She also added that disclaimers — the tiny print that reads “Lashes enhanced in post-production” on a mascara ad — are no defense against making false claims.

Sinding said that in his work as a photographer and occasional retoucher, his clients often send images back for more edits, and that the cumulative effect of several rounds of changes can lead to an increasingly unrealistic end product. After making minor edits to a batch of images for a major fashion client he declined to name, Sinding says he got the feedback, “Don’t you think it’s distracting that her thighs are touching?” So he had to further whittle away the model’s body. Sinding also said that in shooting street style photos for major publications he has learned that photos of models and thin people are easier to sell, regardless of how the subject is dressed, than photos of even particularly well-dressed people who happen to be shorter or fatter than models.

Recent Model Alliance interviewee Eric Kee Skyped into the symposium to talk about the technology he helped develop to rate images on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being relatively little altered and 5 being significantly ‘shopped.

Ziff put the issue of advertising regulation and the use of Photoshop into the context of models’ overall lack of empowerment within the industry. She also pointed out that the issue of body image is often covered in a way that focuses on the effects of fashion ads on women in general — but rarely examines the effects on the models who have to live up to the industry’s standards. “There’s a public health issue,” said Ziff, that gets a lot of ink, “but there’s also a labor issue.” Models have died of eating disorders, and the risk of entering recovery and seeing one’s work dry up is very real. Even high-profile models, meanwhile, have been Photoshopped after the fact by clients seeking to misrepresent their bodies (like Crystal Renn, who was Photoshopped down to a size 0, and Irina Shayk, who with the help of Photoshop had a lingerie shoot for Spanish GQ turn into a nude shoot). The fact that such misrepresentation happens to girls with industry clout shows how hard it is for younger, less-established models to have a say in how their photos are ultimately published.

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