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GIRL MODEL exposes the truth behind the modeling industry

A line of girls in bikinis, holding up numbers and waiting to be called
The documentary GIRL MODEL provides a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of the fashion industry, viewed from two perspectives: a former model turned scout, and a young Siberian girl being recruited. Co-director Ashley Sabin tells SUNfiltered that she hopes GIRL MODEL encourages viewers to “look beyond the image” and become more media-literate about fashion editorials, advertisements and models. The film brings to light the people and labor behind such images, challenging viewers to think about where their media come from. Modeling can demand a high cost of people, one that many consumers aren’t aware of.

In the past decade or so, there has been considerable cultural attention to topics like models’ physical health and the images projected to women and girls. A recent teen-led and SPARK Summit-backed campaign to get major magazines to stop using altered images in their pages attracted major headlines when Seventeen signed a “body peace pledge.” But there has been far less focus on the backend of the industry and what happens in business offices and casting calls. GIRL MODEL cracks this wide open, and some of the things it puts on display may surprise viewers when it premieres on September 5.

Directors (and Sundance alums) Sabin and David Redmon traveled back and forth between Siberia and Tokyo over the course of the film, following the interconnected but ultimately separate paths of model scout Ashley Arbaugh and model Nadya. The brutal casting call that opens the film shows us a room filled with milling girls in bikinis undergoing ruthless scrutiny from model scouts looking for the next big find; Arbaugh talks about how the agency she represents gets girls “early.” Nadya, fresh-faced and young, looks disoriented and unsure of herself.

For every famous supermodel, scores of girls struggle to get known in the industry; Sabin likens it to the chances of winning the jackpot. GIRL MODEL follows the predatory practices used by recruiters and modeling agencies, and highlights the consequences of those actions through Nadya’s interactions with the industry. She comes from a community where mothers encourage their daughters to model to provide them with an escape route — and generate income for their families. Many young girls are eager to comply, seizing a chance at getting out and building something better for themselves. That creates circumstances ripe for exploitation, as many models start their careers young and with limited knowledge of the industry (or the world). “People want to get angry at Nadya’s family,” Sabin tells SUNfiltered, “but [you have to] look at the historical and cultural context.”

Ashley and David looking into the camera

Sabin pointed out that while Russia and Brazil have become major scouting locations, scouts are also active right in middle America, where they look for low-income girls in malls and similar locations to recruit. What happens, Sabin asks, “for these young girls coming out of Siberia or anywhere around the world, if you pull your way out of your social network, your family, your friends, your school… what do you do when your modeling career ends?”

The film, which raises this question and many more, is being supported by backers on Kickstarter; you can become one of them.

Photo credits: Ashley Sabin and David Redmon; Natasha McKittrick. Images courtesy Ashley Sabin.