Karen Elson Thinks Fashion Needs More Feminism

Supermodel and musician Karen Elson popped up over at Rookie to answer advice questions from teen readers. Elson offered reassurance to one teen who was feeling self-conscious about her tooth gap, gave another advice about how to have a more constructive relationship with her mother (boundaries!), and helped out a girl who was told by her friends that she "owed" it to a boy who went down on her to do something to him in "return."

"First of all, you are never obligated to return a sexual favor," writes Elson. "What's important is that you and your partner(s) communicate about what feels good to you and to him/her, and above all that it's 100% consensual (and if you're bullied into doing something by your friends, it's not). Do only what you're comfortable with and that makes you feel good." Damn straight.

But perhaps most interestingly, given Elson's own career, was her response to a young model who identifies as a feminist, and who feels conflicted about the nature of her work:

I have identified as a feminist for most of my life, particularly in the past few months, and my feminism is very important to me. A few months ago I began modeling, and as much as I enjoy it, I know that the fashion industry doesn't always gel with feminism. I feel like a bit of a fraud being both a feminist and a model, but I don't want to quit either one. How can I still work in the fashion industry whilst maintaining my personal integrity? -P., Sydney

I started modeling when I was 16. In my 20s I started reading a lot about feminism, and that made me uncomfortable with so many aspects of the fashion business, especially the unattainable beauty standards it creates and upholds, and the hypersexualized, totally unrealistic version of women it presents to the world. As a model, wasn't I contributing to this evil force that was hurting women (including me)? I had a hard time with this question for a long time.

Then I kind of looked around me, toward the examples of models like Kate Moss, Gisele Bundchen, Naomi Campbell, and Milla Jovovich-these women weren't meek and passive; they were strong, savvy businesswomen who had transcended all the myths about being a model. They were (and are) powerful, and each one probably had (and has) legions of men working for them. They are changing the industry from the inside, which in many ways can be more effective than campaigning for change as an outsider.

Listen, the fashion business is far from perfect-that goes for any industry, of course, but fashion is unusual in that its values leak over into the larger culture, and can make girls and women feel bad about themselves. But it's a double-edged sword: I've met many unconventionally beautiful women who were ridiculed for their looks as teenagers, and went on to find success in the modeling industry. Modeling actually helped them feel beautiful, and was a step toward their own empowerment and self-discovery. Cases in point: all of the women mentioned in the previous answer, and yours truly.

I'm also among the models I know who are proud feminists, so I can tell you that it really is possible to be both. If you assume that models can't be political, that we can't have strong opinions and beliefs, you're just falling prey to the popularly held misogynist view that beautiful women are stupid. You are proof that that isn't true. If you enjoy modeling and you know who you are and what you believe, there's no reason not to do it. Go enjoy it! As a feminist, you can help change the industry by challenging beauty ideals, speaking out about the treatment of models, and being a role model for other women. It would be a shame if there were no feminists in fashion. The truth is we need more women like you.

We do need more feminists in fashion — more women who are able to recognize the power that the industry has within the wider culture, and its manifold impacts on women and girls, and who are willing to try and work to insure those impacts can be positive. If fashion is going to realize its potential for change, we need more women working in it like that young model who wrote in for advice. We also need more women like Karen Elson.

Karen Elson Is Your Friend [Rookie]