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More Than Just a Paper Doll

by Carole VanSickle


Photos: courtesy of Ashley Mears Ashley Mears, a model herself, is senior author of a paper about the role of emotional labor in the modeling industry.


Maintaining a flawless physique, a fabulous face and a magnificent mane may be the easy part of a fashion model’s job, according to a study reported in the June 2005 issue of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.

“Models endure a lot of humiliation and objectification,” said Ashley Mears, the paper’s senior author and herself a model. “Emotionally, you have to work hard to reassert your identity and dignity.”

Mears, a graduate student at New York University, began doing research on the modeling industry as an undergraduate at the University of Georgia with help from her mentor, William Finlay, a UGA sociologist and the paper’s co-author. Being an industry insider, she was able to interview models of all ages and varying experiences.

Mears and Finlay determined that models perform a highly complicated form of “emotional labor,” which is far more psychologically demanding than the job’s often grueling physical requirements.

Many professions rely on some degree of emotional labor — psychological work that helps achieve desired results and ensure job success. A flight attendant may be instructed to adopt a pleasant but firm demeanor to enlist passenger cooperation, for example, or a trial lawyer may need to appear ferociously assertive in order to win over a jury.

“At a minimum, models need to conform to general norms of conventional attractiveness,” the authors wrote. But because models also resist being taken at face value — an industry standard — they engage in emotional labor both to resist objectification and to manipulate people into hiring them.

“Emotional labor for models enables them to redefine themselves as something other than paper dolls who are being dressed up, criticized and objectified,” Mears said. “For their own well-being and career success, they must view themselves as actors instead of objects or subjects.”

But while the psychological demands of modeling place a premium on emotional labor, Mears and Finlay found that models are often ill-prepared to use it effectively. They enter the profession with little or no instruction in emotional labor (whether by that name or some other) and must therefore rely on their own resourcefulness and presence of mind.

For more information, contact William Finlay at


Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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