When I was 15 years old, my agent at the time sent me to a photographer’s apartment for a test shoot. It was one of my first tests, and I headed over there not knowing what to expect, but eager to start my career and impress my new agency. The photographer, a French Canadian straight man at least twice my age, didn’t speak English, and my French skills were basic at best. We were alone in his apartment.

“Though this outfit choice made me uncomfortable, I complied. That was the first time I said yes to something when I would have rather said no.”

He rummaged through the clothes I had brought, and pulled up a blazer. Then he went into his bedroom and returned with a pair of his own jeans. That was what he decided I should wear: an open blazer with nothing underneath it, and his jeans, left unbuttoned. Though this outfit choice made me uncomfortable, I complied. That was the first time I said yes to something when I would have rather said no. After shooting a few frames on his balcony, he motioned for me to follow him inside, because he wanted to take a few photos of me on his bed.

That story ends there. Aside from asking me to prematurely show off cleavage and pose on a bed, nothing sinister actually happened. But as an insecure 15-year-old, it felt sinister enough. I had never been alone with a strange, older man before. My agency put the photos in my book.

“Aside from asking me to prematurely show off cleavage and pose on a bed, nothing sinister actually happened. But as an insecure 15-year-old, it felt sinister enough.”

At that young age, I felt similarly uncomfortable at my most of my first shoots, like when I was told to meet a photographer for the first time at a subway station on the other side of town, or when another photographer insisted on giving me a back massage. But, being so eager to do well, I never spoke up or said no, not even to my (then) agent, who set up these appointments. I stopped modeling shortly after. My agency didn’t fight it — I probably looked too stiff in my photos anyway.

When I returned to modeling at 19, I had much more self-esteem and strength, and so I thought I would be better able to assert myself. I started with a new (and significantly better) agency, and did my first test shoots with full teams. I started to work regularly, and felt comfortable in front of the camera, discovering that I really enjoyed posing and performing for photos. So when I was eventually asked by my Paris agent if I would “tastefully” pose topless, I said ‘sure!’, and even enjoyed the liberation of it. But, along with this gradual comfort came a gradual compliance with other people’s behavior. I realize now that the uncomfortable moments never really disappeared; they just evolved into an ever-widening acceptance of what was expected of me on set. I am in my early twenties and I still find it difficult to say ‘no,’ because it’s become quite easy for me to say ‘yes.’

“When a photographer makes a really crude remark about my breasts or my butt, I force a nervous laugh and try to pretend it didn’t happen.”

I love modeling. As I’ve written before in my Blackbook column, I find performing in front of a camera thrilling and often empowering. And I understand that models, by definition, are commodities; we are visual tools used to sell products. And I don’t have a problem with that fundamental reality of the job. But one thing that I am aware of in doing my job is how often I am asked to be the one to remain professional and deal with it. When an important photographer asks to go for a drink, and my agent says that I should do it, I don’t say no. When a photographer makes a really crude remark about my breasts or my butt, I force a nervous laugh and try to pretend it didn’t happen. When a stylist takes it upon himself to rub lotion on my breasts, instead of letting me do it myself, I don’t intervene. When I shoot in public and have to endure a barrage of catcalls and degrading remarks from strangers on the street, I ‘ignore’ them. It’s a lot less trouble.

In most other professions, there are very clear parameters determining right and wrong behavior, but looking at my career as a model, I realize that I’ve become the easy-to-work-with, comfortable-with-her-body ideal, and that I’ve broadened my own parameters of comfort to include moments that should make me feel squeamish, but now don’t.

“Some of the most crucial advances in women’s rights in the last half century have been the right to safety and professionalism in the workplace.”

Some of the most crucial advances in women’s rights in the last half century have been the right to safety and professionalism in the workplace. These fundamental tenets of human rights are especially vital in the modeling industry, where many of the workers are still children, some of whom have difficulties articulating themselves in English. I am lucky that my modeling experiences thus far haven’t been too dangerous or violating, and that I have had a great team at my defense, but even those minor, subtle instances of harassment need to be recognized. There are so many young girls and boys who need protection, and who need the right to say no in any capacity.

10 Responses to The Difficulties Of Saying ‘No’

  1. Hagit Whitaker says:

    Bravo Dana for your success and your courage. You are fabulous!

  2. purejuice says:

    this kind of truth-telling will change the world.
    i’ve been reading fashion and feminist magazines and literature for over 50 years. during that time, zilch has been done by fashionists or feminists to protect models. this is shameful.
    i think the founding of the models alliance is one of the tectonic plate shift news stories of my life time.
    i hope models will continue to speak of their experience, and will out fashion designers who don’t pay them and who say such things as it’s okay for russian mobsters to shake the girls down because he can get other ones. we outside the industry all think we know who this is. but you’re the only ones who know.

    he, and all the exploiters and gropers and mobsters and creeps, deserve to be outed and boycotted by fashion editors and customers.

  3. Maybe we should ask Diana Van Fostenberg and get grants from the US government to implement assertiveness training for all models hired at Fashion Week events. Designers are decent and generally don’t care but since its so competitive, you are young women, and there are many older male photographers, event coordinators = asymmetry of power, there is bound to be trouble.

    “I realize that I’ve become the easy-to-work-with, comfortable-with-her-body ideal, and that I’ve broadened my own parameters of comfort to include moments that should make me feel squeamish, but now don’t.” This reminds me of the interview with Jackie Kennedy as she said that she was trying to be the ideal submissive “Asiatic” wife (while her husband was having affairs).. which even put chills down her daughters spine. Its sad that those moments don’t make you squeamish because you are breaking down your body’s natural defense against getting hurt.

    Its the model who sells the clothes and is the backbone of the industry. How is it that random men create the ideal of the submissive woman, “Asiatic”. What you described was my parent’s generation’s ideal for a Saudi wife, now even young Saudi men don’t want submissive wives. And I tell photographers who try to push me, “What if I want to work at a law firm? If they google me and my competition for the place, I will have no chance of being employed because I look unprofessional” and modeling careers don’t last after one’s 20s. (most employers google)

    The fact is law firms often won’t even hire girls who have photos that they posed in a swimsuit pageant. Posing topless is liberating? What a joke. It restricts your career options once your modeling career is over. I ask photographers – “I have a job outside of modeling and my clients won’t take me seriously, why are you asking me to be fired from my job?” Still they push! ” Why are you pushing and insisting? Would you do this in an office setting?” They don’t give a damn and don’t have a heart. Just a male organ, and don’t care who they destroy to get what they want. Maybe we should get magazines to stop using photos that would compromise girls’ future careers, like the Chanel Chance ad – the truth: few will take her seriously as a professional once her modeling career is over. It’s sad. Most offices, where the jobs are, happen to be conservative and think that topless photos compromise the image of their brand.

  4. Wow. Did you know that what you are describing is considered sexual harassment under the law. As for the topless shoot, they are taking advantage of your youth and sexuality and making you compliant to the desires of male domination. The liberation is b.s. invented for you to succumb to desires of men twice your age that some artists buy, but in the old days Renoir and other artists used to hire a young prostitute to pose nude. Your account of the model industry and being a good submissive woman reminds me of my friends’ description of Saudi Arabia. Modeling & sexual subjection: Saudi Arabia of Western teenage girls?

    I refuse to do any “tasteful” anything. I lived half my life in Middle East, half in the west. A neighbor’s friend of mine, they said oh, be tasteful, we can just have an elegant lovely party for you. “I don’t want that man, I’m 14, I don’t want that 40 year old man.” “Just a little engagement”. Okay. “just one date with him”…”just come to this other party.” She was forcefully married off to a man she hated at age 14. By the way, as a model I do know of someone who gave me crude gestures other girls say he raped someone.

  5. Pascal says:

    I think the problem here is communication. You should also check out a photographer’s work in advance to see what you might get. If you go and shoot with Terry R. nothing should surprise you, and NO I don’t think what he does is OK either!!! Bad things can happen, but they also happen in high school when you date the quarterback. If you are going into the fashion business then sexuality is part of it. I remember seeing an old Kate Moss photo by Albert Watson (I think) where she was nude but you can see the bandage over the side of her breasts to hide her nipples. When it’s published it’s funny but they Photoshopped out the bandage. I don’t see her complaining now. The society is somewhat repressed about nudity and if you are not sure what to expect on a test shoot then get clarity before you go. Since you rarely have a stylist at that level, it’s going to be about selling beauty and sexuality and some skin. If you can bring along a Cavalli dress I’m sure you won’t have to worry about getting naked.

  6. R says:

    I’m curious to know what the model alliance would change about this interaction, other than – was alone with a older male photographer. This is something that upsets me to no end with organizations like this -the stereotype of the pervy male photographer.

    The image portrayed that we are all Roman Polanski with a bag full of quaaludes and a black leather couch.

    It sounded to me like this French Canadian Photographer did not exploit you at all, you were uncomfortable and you didnt like the clothes.
    My first job ever was working at a blockbuster and I didn’t like having to haul trash or wear the hideous uniform. It made me uncomfortable and I didnt like the clothes either. Their expectations were certainly reasonable and it appears that so was your photographers.

    Seriously ladies, we need to come to terms with what constitutes a crappy job vs actual exploitation. I KNOW there is real exploitation going on out there – with actual sexual demands on models. Find those stories..post those..fight to stop those. That is how you will legitimize your organization.

  7. eugenia says:

    This entry brought back alot of ill feeling I have toward the industry. Photographers are all too eager to push a model to get as naked as possible, if not fully nude, and if you speak up about feeling uncomfortable suddenly you’re labled as “difficult” and fall into the background of the shoot, or aren’t chosen to work with them again. I have a twin and we both modeled professionally for a number of years. However, she would speak up whenever she was asked to change in a room full of strangers; speak up when she was asked to pose in a provocative manner with see through no clothing; and if someone was making crude or pervy remarks or actions towards her she would scowl and make it very clear she was unhappy. She also refused to model in most swimwear shows, since random men (Security guards? Photographers? Janitors?) somehow seem to linger around backstage where women are completely naked. She’d speak up, and lose work in the process. I’d keep my mouth shut, feeling just as uncomfortable as she was in some instances but more eager to please, and was suddenly known as the sister that was easier to work with and worked alot more than she did. I liked that I was being praised of course, but I wished I had the same amount of self respect and dignity my sister had. She chose herself over work and popularity, and I did the opposite. I admire her greatly for it and beat myself up for not doing the same. Frankly I don’t see why there has to be a compromise on either level.
    Anyway, all that said congrats on this new venture, I hope it brings about some much needed change in the industry. And if there’s something I can do to help spread the change, please let me know. Thank you :)

  8. Nastassia says:

    This article his bringing back a lots of memories… I started working as a model when I was 17. I entered an agency, and for my first test shoot ever they sent me to a photographer that was more than twice my age. We were at his home, alone, he did makeup and styling by himself. The agency did not mentioned to me that it was a nude test (I am not saying topless, but really nude). Even though it was made tastefully, I was not exactly comfortable, but was afraid the agency would not want to work with me if I refused. And the “creaming” thing also happened to me, as well as the studio full of people not directly linked to the shoot while your 100% naked, and everybody act as if it was the most normal thing, and you should not be disturbed by it (and I’m not talking here about runway backstages…)
    About the agency, I should also add that at that time I was suffering from anorexia, my BMI was 15, and I was asked to loose 2 cm (>waist) …
    During my -short- career, I have also seen teenage girls being asked by an agency director for a dinner, or a drink, and even if nothing “happened”, this simple fact is already disturbing.
    An Alliance like this was much, much, much needed !!! Congratulations for making it happen !

  9. Milly Brown says:

    You’re amazing Dana xx

  10. Sara Ziff says:

    No model ever has to be uncomfortable saying ‘no’. That’s why we established MODEL ALLIANCE SUPPORT, our fully confidential grievance reporting system, offered in conjunction with Actors’ Equity Association and the American Guild of Musical Artists. Learn more under ‘Services’ on our website.

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