I never thought I’d be writing about a woman of the week who’s a model, but Sara Ziff has defied all of my stereotypes and assumptions. Ziff has been a model since the age of 14, and has modeled for big-name brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Stella McCartney, Prada, and Calvin Klein. In an essay written for the BBC, Ziff notes that modeling has given her “a job that not only pays my bills, but also allowed me to put myself through school and made me financially independent”. She was able to graduate from Columbia University with a degree in political science and continued to model all along the way.
What makes Ziff so impressive isn’t the fact that she graduated from a prestigious university while also modeling, but instead the work she has done in recent years to raise awareness of the labor abuses that continually occur in the modeling world. Ziff, along with other models, started carrying a video camera to various jobs to record both the good and the bad experiences models faced on a regular basis, and after 5 years they had over 300 hours of footage. Within this footage there were a lot of instances of sexual abuse and poor labor practices. As Ziff recounts, “One model described a casting with one of fashion’s most celebrated photographers who asked her to take her clothes off, then took his clothes off and demanded that she touch him sexually.”
After compiling together the footage, in 2010 Ziff released the documentary Picture Me, which gave models an opportunity to be behind the camera for the first time, and allowed them to express their own struggles faced while modeling. In the documentary, Ziff argues for a labor union for models and a restriction of the ages in which models can advertise adult clothing. She criticizes the modeling world for having the ideal body among adult women to be that of a 13-year-old who hasn’t hit puberty yet, noting that “a 13-year-old girl can be naturally skinny, like a beanpole, in a way that a grown woman, who has hips and breasts, generally can’t – and shouldn’t aspire to be.”
While there are plenty of people outside of the fashion world critiquing its business practices, what makes Ziff so deserving of being woman of the week is the fact that she has power from the inside to make changes for models everywhere, and that she’s taking advantage of that power in a way that other models before her haven’t. Ziff has already started to make important changes in the modeling industry in the United States by starting the Model Alliance, a nonprofit labor group striving to improve the working conditions for models in America. Furthermore, Ziff has managed to convince all international versions of Vogue magazine to stop using models under the age of 16 who “appear to have an eating disorder”. While Ziff herself admits that this definition is a little too vague, it’s a step in the right direction, especially considering the fact that Vogue is one of the top fashion magazines in the world.
Sara Ziff is proving that models can – and should – be more than just a pretty face on the cover of a magazine. By providing a voice that’s never been given to models before, Ziff’s revolutionary changes in the world of fashion will hopefully only continue to grow as her work continues to inspire both models and the agencies that hire them.
An excerpt from Picture Me:
Ziff’s essay published by the BBC (definitely worth the read):