Last week, the British tabloid The Daily Mirror published photos of what appeared to be supermodel Kate Moss doing cocaine. The fallout was swift, and the story ran through the media like wildfire. On World News Tonight, Jake Tapper reported that Moss had lost several lucrative modeling contracts, including for H&M, Burberry, and Chanel.
Why the outcry?
Drug abuse in the fashion industry has been an open secret for years. Moss's downfall came not because of her drug use, but because she was (apparently) photographed using the drugs. One major complaint: Moss was setting a poor example as a role model. "It's a poor role model for a child that shops at that kind of store or any kind of chain that caters to young women," said an unidentified H&M shopper.
How realistic is that concern? Are psychologists and public health workers truly worried that tens of thousands of Chanel and H&M shoppers are really going to take up cocaine just because they found out that Moss has a drug habit and want to be like her? No. The reality is that the situation is a public relations issue, not a psychological or social issue.
Fashion models have long been blamed for being poor role models. Usually the criticism is leveled at their thin physiques instead of their personal lives. Yet fashion models are not role models, were never claimed to be role models, and in fact are not seen as role models. Critics have greatly exaggerated the influence that fashion models have over the public, and over young women in particular. In 2002, supermodel Naomi Campbell admitted to a drug habit. If girls were using Campbell as a model for behavior, surely knowing that their idol was a drug abuser spawned more users. Yet no spike in drug use among young women occurred following the revelation.
The news media and many pundits seem to assume that people regard fashion models as role models through the psychological process of modeling. Yet fashion models are simply employed advertisement tools. Just because a person is trying to sell us clothes or perfume does not mean that we emulate him or her as a role model. Despite popular assumptions, there are few scientific studies that suggest young people actually look up to fashion models as role models.
Many of the assumptions about modeling (the process, not the profession) come from a branch of psychology known as Social Learning Theory, based on the research of Albert Bandura. Bandura's theory emphasizes the importance of observing and modeling the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others. Bandura states: "Most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action." This theory helps explain how children learn to drive a car, for example, or throw temper tantrums that elicit maximum parental attention or cookies.
Impressionable young girls are said to see thin women and model what they see, possibly leading to eating disorders. For those with only a superficial knowledge of Bandura's theory, this might seem plausible. Yet there are several principles of the theory that actually argue against young women emulating fashion models as role models.
First, the modeling that Bandura discusses involves the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others—not their physical characteristics. If models were seen on television and in fashion magazines refusing food or bingeing and purging, that would be a behavior that could potentially be modeled by young women. But thinness is a characteristic, not a behavior that can be modeled. There is no clear action for girls to model; the woman could be thin for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with anorexia. (For exactly that reason, many anti-anorexia images and messages have come under criticism for actually encouraging disordered eating. Experts suggest that televised depictions that actually show girls bingeing and purging may have the opposite effect and be seen as a model for young girls to follow.)
Secondly, the theory assumes that individuals are more likely to adopt a modeled behavior if the model is similar to the observer. That is, people are likely to model others who are like them in significant ways. If the person they decide they want to be like is dissimilar to them, modeling won't occur because they will realize they have chosen an unachievable role model. As media critics often point out, the average woman has very little actual similarity to fashion models.
In fact, one British study found that not only do young women not see fashion models as role models, they don't even see the fashion models' thin bodies as desirable. Researchers showed 901 young women a list of famous women and asked whose body they'd like to have. A curvy actress came out on top, while Kate Moss got only 14 percent of the votes. When young women were asked what they thought of fashion models specifically, the results are surprising. Instead of idolizing the fashion models, the vast majority of respondents responded negatively: most said they were too thin, and only 8 percent said the models were beautiful.
So while Moss enters treatment, parents and pundits need not worry that this fashion model is a role model. Moss issued an apology and took "full responsibility" for her actions. She didn't blame society, didn't claim she was framed, didn't blame the fashion industry. In a world where those caught doing wrong often point fingers everywhere but themselves, perhaps in at least one way Kate Moss is a role model.
Benjamin Radford is a media critic and author of Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us.