Try to think of the last time you saw Coco Rocha posing for a lingerie shoot. Or a bathing suit spread. Or walking in the Victoria's Secret fashion show. Can you name the last time you saw that happen? Didn't think so. That's because the top model has a little-known but firm policy against doing nude work, implied nude work, or anything that might read as too sexualized for her tastes.
It's not like Rocha's a prude — her close friend and fellow model Behati Prinsloo is perhaps best known as a Victoria's Secret girl, after all — but nudity just isn't consonant with Rocha's image of her career. Setting that boundary is her right, and a model in Rocha's position — having made a name for herself working with virtually every top designer, fashion brand, and magazine in the world — is privileged in that she can put her foot down on things like nudity. (And on working with Terry Richardson, another thing Rocha won't do.) Which is why it's very strange that Coco Rocha should appear looking practically topless on the May cover of Brazilian Elle magazine.
Rocha took to her blog to explain how the picture came about — with the help of a lot of Photoshop:
As a high fashion model I have long had a policy of no nudity or partial nudity in my photoshoots. For my recent Elle Brazil cover shoot I wore a body suit under a sheer dress, but recently discovered that the body suit was Photoshopped out to give the impression that I am showing much more skin than I actually was or am comfortable with. This was specifically against my expressed verbal and written direction. I'm extremely disappointed that my wishes and contract were ignored. I strongly believe every model has a right to set rules for how she is portrayed and for me these rules were clearly circumvented.
Models have hit back at clients for using digital post-production tools, most commonly Photoshop, to alter their appearance before. Back in 2010, Crystal Renn was digitally slimmed down in images published for a charity shoot she did — and had no qualms about assailing the photographer publicly. "That body doesn't look like my body," she said. "It doesn't. Having had an eating disorder, I know what that very thin body looks like on me, and it's not something I find attractive. It's not something I aspire to."
But as distressing as changing someone's body shape can be — especially to someone like Renn, with a history of eating disorders and a sensitivity to how high-fashion's über-thin ideal affects women and girls — to use Photoshop as a way to circumvent the provisions of a model's own image-release contract is a potentially even more troubling phenomenon. Last year, Pakistani actress Veena Malik sued FHM India for allegedly using Photoshop to turn implied-nude-with-underwear-on photos into straight-up nude pictures. Model Irina Shayk mulled suing Spanish GQ on similar grounds in 2010.
Law professor and fashion law expert Susan Scafidi, who sits with Rocha on the board of an industry labor-rights group called the Model Alliance (full disclosure: I am also a Model Alliance board member) says such lawsuits can have merit. In Rocha's case, "If her policy against no nudity or partial nudity was part of her written contract, then she can sue for breach of contract and potentially collect monetary damages." If a written contract was breached, Scafidi told Fashionologie, "It's possible that she could ask a court to stop distribution of the magazine, but that would probably be a long shot." Even if no written contract is in place, a model who had a verbal agreement that was ignored "might have an action for breach of privacy, emotional harm or — since she has a general no-nudity policy — damage to her professional reputation."
The problem is that most models are extremely unlikely to seek legal redress due to their systemic disempowerment in the industry. As independent contractors, they are vulnerable to blacklisting, and many models are so young when they begin their careers that they lack understanding of their right to say "no" to certain kinds of work. Rocha, as a top model, is an exception. "She won't be dropped by her agency or shunned by potential employers for writing about the incident or hiring a lawyer," Scafidi says. "But the fact that a major magazine would ignore even Coco's efforts to have some control over her own image gives a sense of how little authority models really have."
Elle Brazil Cover, May 2012 [Oh So Coco]