Before he retired, my dad was a site manager. As such, he often came home covered in dust. Mum would sometimes say, “I hope that’s not asbestos,” but was more generally untroubled that his trade produced such grime. She washed his clothes. He paid the bills. Happily, none of us ever went on to develop asbestosis.
Particular jobs present particular problems. A builder contends with filth and the threat of death. A retail assistant contends with the public and chronic back pain. A male chef is quite likely to have his reproductive equipment over-cooked by hotplates, a factory worker faces physical danger on the line and a knowledge worker confronts the possibility of becoming stupid from the overuse of all that stupid knowledge.
We know these risks going in. If we are sensible, we join a labour organisation to protect us. A union can act to safeguard against these risks.
An Instagram post (pictured above), not so much.
While there can be no meaningful objection made to an individual worker’s complaint, there can be to the unreasonable elevation of that complaint. And the complaint of lingerie model Erin Heatherton is currently resounding worldwide.
Heatherton has told her social media followers and Time that it hurts to be a model. She was engaged by the lingerie company Victoria’s Secret and found that such work involved being unnaturally thin.
This surprise is just as disingenuous as that of the construction worker who can’t believe that he is covered in dust at the end of the working day, WTF, to employ the parlance of the young lingerie consumer.
I mean, seriously. That a model should find herself thinking that she should skip occasional meals is about as shocking to me as my dad remembering that he needed to buy some King Gees. Have you seen a builder? Have you seen a Victoria’s Secret Angel? We all know there are certain physical precautions these workers need to take.
This is not, by any means, to say that it is reasonable to expect models to be thin. But it is to say that it is unreasonable to expect reason from the fashion industry—and the scholar of industrial relations will note that at this point, my comparison of construction with the catwalk has lost all its value.
Which it had to eventually because the erection of a building is very different work from upholding aspiration. Which is what Heatherton was employed to do and, really, I think that the fact she was called an “Angel” should have tipped her off to some degree that her work was to promulgate impossible fantasy.
In California and in France, there are now legal restrictions on the body mass index for models. In a purely industrial sense, this is not a terrible idea. People do work as models and that these people should suffer extreme physical hardship, as so many workers do, is unfair. But, the rationale for such restriction, which also has many advocates in Australia, does not derive entirely, if at all, from the defence of workers’ rights—if it did, there never would have been an expensive and deeply ideological union smashing exercise like the Trade Union Royal Commission.
It derives from the belief that models are inspirational and aspirational workers.
While we can feel for Heatherton purely in an industrial sense—it must be actually terrible to never know the pleasure of a pancake—what we cannot forgive is the wilfully apolitical nature of the support she has been given.
Which is to say, if we want to protect workers from harm, we do not have the option of overlooking the destruction of those organisations whose purpose it has always been to protect workers from harm. And, to be less pinko and more logical about it, we don’t get to have our Angel cake, and eat it, too.
Which is to say, we either accept that the work of a model, which is to showcase an idealised version of a beauty we can never attain, is okay, or we don’t.
Perhaps it is down to the fact that I have terrible eyesight and so remain fairly convinced that I am gorgeous that I have never been overly intimidated by the marketed beauty of others. Or, perhaps it is down to the very basic realisation that advertising exists to make me want things I don’t really need.
Whatever the case, the reception of Heatherton’s cri de cœur as Empowering For All Women sounds like more bunkum to me.
I encourage you to smash the catwalk and refuse the impossible margins of marketable beauty. I encourage you to engage with the matter of labour rights. I encourage you also to think, perhaps, that a picture of an unfeasibly gorgeous woman in bikini bottoms and a crop top that reads “Empowered by Failure” on Instagram is as useful to your revolutionary program as a pair of Spanx. Possibly less so, as I suspect my own foundation garment of being actually bullet proof.