Girl Model: the Naked Truth
This weekend I watched Girl Model on Netflix - I've wanted to see it for such a long time.
This documentary by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin documents the modeling industry behind the scenes as we follow Ashley Arbaugh, a jaded model scout, on her travels to Russia to recruit young models to work in Japan. 13-year-old Siberian Nadya Vall catches Ashley's attention and is soon sitting on a plane to Tokyo, where we get to follow her struggles with loneliness, language barriers and the harsh reality of the industry.
The opening scene of the film sets the tone for this gripping story. Underwear-clad teenage girls crowd together in a bare-walled, grey room for a casting. Some of them look pre-pubescent. One sixteen-year-old girl with the most chiselled, Victoria's Secret-esque body is told that she's going to have to lose some weight. "She looks 25", comments Ashley on another girl. 25 meaning old.
Filled with hope for a better, brighter life, Nadya boards the plane to Tokyo, where no one comes to pick her up at the airport. She's alone, she barely speaks any English at all, she's 13. Luckily, the agency fixes her up with a roommate for her matchbox-sized flat: Madlen, 15, who's a bit more experienced. Plus, she has a credit card, which keeps both girls from starving. Together, the two wannabe models take on the ruthless castings, until, finally, they're shipped off back home without the money or jobs promised by the agency - because she gains 1cm, Madlen gets sent home and saddled with debt (let's remember this is a fifteen-year-old whose body is still growing and changing). The scene where Nadya stands on the agency's balcony in Tokyo, sobbing on the phone to her mum that she wants to go home, while the camera zooms out over a sea of skyscrapers, is chilling.
Working for Tigran Khachatrian's agency NOAH, Ashley gets to travel the world looking for girls that could be the next big thing. At one point, she's seen approving new shots of a model who "will be 13 in October" (that is, a twelve-year-old girl). Her job seems to cause great conflict in her: it doesn't take a genius to spot that slimy Tigran is banking on the sales of teenagers into a ruthless market where many of them might fare much worse than Nadya and Madlen...and Ashley knows this because she used to be a model and quit when she felt exploited. Only now, her job involves putting other girls in the same position. Weighed down by an idea that this is all she knows how to do, Ashley sits behind the walls of her enormous house (that scares her because people can look inside her gigantic windows) and lets her anguishing conscience eat her up from inside...until it's off to the next country, the next conquest, the next girl to sell off to the sharks. The scene where she talks about the two (extremely creepy) baby dolls she keeps at home and having dissected a third one, along with the hospital scenes where she has a cyst removed are indicative of her conflicted nature and desperate keeping up of a facade that she knows is a lie, but is sucked in too deeply to break free. Ashley admits that many girls end up working as prostitutes as a side effect of the sketchy industry she works in...yet, at the end of the film, she's seen saying that Japan is one of the safest markets as "girls rarely go into debt". It's like the paedophile-like obsession with youth, the dangers of prostitution and the constant judging of the girls' still-developing bodies never existed.
I felt sick to my stomach when the model scout said something along the lines of, "the girls try and get out of poverty, so this is why they do it. Their families hope they create a better life, so they can't be blamed. The agency does it because that's what the client wants. The client wants it because that's what sells. There is no one to blame, but it keeps happening."
There is someone to blame: the agencies and clients that put financial gain ahead of girls' health, safety and well-being. Throughout the documentary, the girls are treated like objects, like something you buy at the market, use and then sell on. Ashley's critical eyes virtually freezing one extremely skinny girl at the casting, deadpanning, "I think her hips are too big", just encompasses everything that's so very wrong with the seedy underworld of fashion.
Both David and I were horrified with the documentary. It's very well made and its harsh, unflinching style remains with you for days afterwards. I very much recommend it - it's eye-opening and extremely strong. Watch!
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