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Real Talk: On Fashion Modelling, With Ollie Henderson

Here, cult Australian model Ollie Henderson discusses the perception of modelling, body image standards and the representation of women in fashion, ahead of MBFWA 2015.
By Courtney Sanders, 09 Apr 2015
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Real Talk: On Fashion Modelling, With Ollie Henderson

Ollie Henderson for Catalogue's All Our Heroes are Weirdos issue

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"Modelling epitomises the objectification of women: we're seen first as an object and second as a brain." – Ollie Henderson
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In the past few weeks, governments have been taking action to regulate the modelling industry. France are likely to pass legislation that will enforce a minimum Body Mass Index on models working in the country, and Denmark have strengthened their Ethical Fashion Charter, the set of rules that governs their industry.

Furthermore, movements like #DropThePlus are popping up, and the Internet is celebrating the use by labels of models who sit outside of the industry's strict paradigms.

All of this is to say that the industry is in the spotlight right now, both for the current image standards it reveres, and the changes it's starting to make.

With all of this going on, and with this year's MBFWA taking place next week, we thought it an apt time to catch up with renowned Australian model – but also so much more than that – Ollie Henderson, to talk about the public perception of models, the industry's body standards and all of the other issues fashion modelling raises, with someone who has first hand experience.

You've been a model for a long time now. When you tell people you're a model, what kind of response do you receive?

I've found when I tell someone who doesn't know me at all that I'm a model it's met with one of two responses.

1) Really enthusiastic – they'll ask you who you model for. This is always a difficult question: do I rattle off the big names I have worked for and risk sounding like a dick or do I tell you about my regular clients that you probably haven't heard of, and aren't as exciting? This also tells me that this person might be interested in me for the wrong reasons. Interest or a little excitement is fine, it's a pretty interesting job, but over-enthusiasm makes me feel really awkward.

2) Very dismissive and judgmental – they think you're stupid.

Neither are great.

Unless I foresee a relationship with a person in the future, like a friend of a friend, I usually lie; I'll say I'm an accountant or something that doesn't come back with a lot of questions.

I've always felt a little uncomfortable taking too much pride in my work as a model, because it's not like I've worked for my accomplishments; I was just born like this and have been very lucky. This isn't to say that the job isn't hard or that models don't work, but being a model is genetic luck.

Do you think negative stereotypes around models still exist – you know, those ones about "all looks, no brains"?

Yes I think they still exist. One of the things I noticed in the early days of House of Riot was that people expected the project to lack integrity and intelligence, and I feel this was mostly due to the fact that I am a model. This actually worked in my favour as it really pushed me to maintain both of these points in all aspects of my work. This stereotype has really helped me in a lot of ways since I have been modelling – I couldn't stand the thought of someone thinking I was a dumb model so I've focussed on self-educating in my free time, and always have things going on outside of modeling.

I feel a little silly saying that other people's opinions are what drove me to improve myself but it's true.

I've always been interested in why these stereotypes exist. I was writing a piece about the fashion industry recently and I came to the conclusion that the fashion industry is considered silly because it's the one industry where women have always been able to earn more than men, via modelling. What do you think?

I read that article and loved it! I have been meaning to email you and let you know, I'm glad you bought it up.

I think this stereotype exists because of men's ownership over women and our role as the trophy or arm candy (I know these may seem like very bold statements in 2015 to anyone who doesn't know a lot about feminism but I'm open to elaborating if anyone is interested in hearing a long feminist rant).

Modelling epitomises the objectification of women: we're seen first as an object and second as a brain. Modelling inherently objectifies people, it's difficult to get the message across that this woman might be more than a clothes rack if she doesn't have a voice. If society tells you a woman is primarily an object and it is reinforced by the fact that she's a model, this can lead to people not thinking anything else of her.

France recently announced they're probably going to institute legislation in which models won't be allowed to work if they have a BMI of less than 18. What do you think about these actions? Do you think they're tackling the problem in the right way?

I personally think the biggest problem in the modelling industry, in relation to body shape, is actually age. If you're a tall, slim person it's highly likely that you were a gangly teenager whilst your body was still growing into its adult shape. When you have 16 year-old models with teenage bodies presented as women you have a problem. At 16 it can be natural to have a size zero body with no hips, but when you're 23 it's a little more work to maintain this shape and even more the older one gets.

As for the BMI, it's really easy to lie about this. It's good that they are bringing some measures in but I don't think that this is the way to do it.

I just did my BMI and I am 17 [if France implement their proposed laws, the minimum BMI will be 18]. I'm 176cm and 55kg and a standard size 8. This may mean nothing to your readers but I'm not 'Paris Slim', and am far from having an eating disorder. I doubt any model would have a BMI over 18, and they'll just lie. A BMI below 18.5 is medically considered underweight, which is why they have selected this number. According to this I have been under weight my entire life and probably will be for a while. This measure won't be followed and it doesn't address the problem realistically.

I guess more to the point: do you think there is a problem?

Not in Australia but overseas is different.

There's a lot of pressure in Paris and New York to 'make it', and as a model there isn't a lot you can do to further your career; it's either there or it's not. You can't study further or read more, so it's easy to fixate on your body.

Another thing to consider is that, as any psychologist will tell you, eating disorders are not as simple as 'I think I'm fat'; it's about control. As a model you don't know what country you will be in next week; someone else, your agent, runs all things in your life, including where you are living and what jobs you do, and you never get your schedule until the day before. Everything is up in the air all the time and someone else is managing it. You have no control. Your body can easily become this focus of something you are in control of.

Eating disorders can also be contagious: being placed in a model apartment where this is going on can be difficult.

It does happen, but there are many factors to consider. It also only really exists in small parts of the modelling industry – high fashion and show season. Outside of shows it's not as bad and outside of high fashion it is even less.

Do you think that the standards the industry has set are too slim?

I think this goes back to the age. If the standard wasn't a 17 year-old it might not be. But there are also many industry standards depending on what kind of work you are doing. Like I said earlier, the ultra thin model is only one part of the industry; there are different standards depending on what kind of work you are doing.

Do you think it's unfair to always blame the fashion industry for this problem?

It's cyclical, fashion is a reflection of society and also feeds it, just like any media. Everyone in the fashion industry always tries to pass the buck on this one, going around in circle of self-preservation on whose fault it actually is. It is unfair to blame the fashion industry alone, it is a part of a bigger societal problem, that problem being the focus on womens' bodies instead of on their minds. Why are we talking about the models when it's the clothes they are wearing that should be celebrated?

As for bad things the industry does, having articles like 5 Ways To Get Rid of Cellulite, with an image of a model's photoshopped bum is bad. The focus is on what's wrong with people's bodies with a direct comparison to what you should want. Which is unrealistic because everyone gets cellulite, even models – cellulite is a part of life (lol, what a quote). But having a model in a Givenchy campaign where the focus is on the clothes is not bad at all.

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Liked this? Read these articles about the fashion industry:

1) I'm Sick of People Thinking the Fashion Industry is Stupid

2) These 4 Docos Uncover the Dark Side of the Modelling Industry

3) Denmark Institutes Rules to Reduce the Unhealthiness of Models

4) France May Ban Too-Skinny Models

Have news tips? Send them through to us at info@cataloguemagazine.com.au

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