Wherever there is a large gathering of teenage girls, you can bet that lurking somewhere nearby are scouts for modelling agencies, scanning the crowd, walking brazenly up to the tallest and thinnest of them and thrusting a business card into their hands with a promise to change their life.
So it comes as no surprise to hear that there were scouts at this year’s V festival, competing with each other to recruit new talent. It’s even less surprising that two scouts from modelling agencies approached an anorexic 16-year-old within 45 minutes.
Writing in The Times this morning, Harriet Richards (all names have been changed) writes about how two scouts approached her younger sister, Molly who suffers from severe anorexia. Molly has spent 11 months of the last year in hospitals and inpatients units, and after being discharged this summer she was permitted to travel to V festival with her two older sisters to “have some fun and reward her hard work”.
Harriet and her older sister, Lucy orchestrated the entire day with the painstaking care that’s required when you’re escorting someone with anorexia somewhere new: they planned the meals, they limited their time at the festival, they avoided acts with big crowds, they did everything they could to shield their sister.
Despite saying they weren’t interested, a woman pursued them, brandishing her business card and 'citing Molly’s ‘perfect body type’ as a guarantee of success'
What they didn’t plan for was the model scouts who “descended on her skinny 5ft 10in frame, her gaunt cheekbones and beanpole legs”. Despite saying they weren’t interested, a woman pursued them, brandishing her business card and “citing Molly’s ‘perfect body type’ as a guarantee of success”. Another scout approached them soon after, saying she was interested in Molly’s “bone structure”.
The young people that these scouts approach lurking outside the front of Topshop or in fields at music festivals are often underweight teenagers who – just like every other teenager – are looking for validation, for someone to reassure them that they’re doing the right thing. And these scouts are those people, they are saying: “I know how hard you’ve tried to look that way, the meals you’ve skipped and the miles you’ve run and now here is your reward. Let me make you famous. Let me make you rich.”
It’s a seductive offer. And it’s also an incredibly dangerous one. As Richards points out, “When someone from a powerful, well-known agency, as one of these scouts was, tells an underweight girl of 16 that they could pay her to look like that, it offers a layer of validation to the starvation that takes doctors years of work to dispel.”
Of course, not all models have eating disorders and not every young girl scouts approach is dangerously underweight. It’s easy to point to the fashion industry and blame them for the 725,000 people in the UK affected by an eating disorder, but their issues and challenges are as complex and varied as everyone else's. Even Richards doesn’t hold the scout personally responsible, and admits that she doesn’t think the scout really realised Molly was ill.
However, the fashion industry does have a responsibility to do better. As Richards highlights when she quotes the eating disorder charity Beat’s statement: “The fashion industry does, however, have a powerful influence that is highly toxic to some vulnerable people.” And to their credit, things do seem to be changing, LVMH (Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton) and Kering recently announced that they were going to stop using excessively thin models on their catwalks and Dolce and Gabbana's used an average-size woman in their latest campaign without making it a PR fanfare.
These are steps in the right direction, but this line of thinking clearly hasn’t trickled down to the modelling scouts sniffing out young, vulnerable, underweight girls at music festivals. And these young girls deserve better.