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We’ll miss models when they’re gone The fashion industry is determined to get imperfect bodies out of the picture

CGI models can't represent an era like Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell. Credit: Ke.Mazur/WireImage

CGI models can't represent an era like Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell. Credit: Ke.Mazur/WireImage


January 13, 2021   5 mins

I used to be quite dubious about whether modelling even counted as a job. It’s just wearing clothes while being beautiful and thin: how hard can that be? Then I had a job that meant I sometimes had to go on fashion shoots. Nothing terribly glamorous: I was working on a knitting magazine, so my duties involved trudging around drizzly parks toting carrier bags full of “technically interesting” garments (the kind of things people would want to make, rather than necessarily wear) for our model of the month to pose in.

And wow, they could turn it on, selling that cabled jerkin with a dazzling smile and an elegant pose in the deeply undazzling, inelegant environs of a Bishops Stortford business park. I wondered whether they knew this was their reward for surviving the scrutiny of me and my colleagues in the office (“not sure about her nose”, “bit tacky looking”, “too booby”). I wondered whether I’d be able to lend quite the same chic to a sweater if I thought people were saying those things about me. That was when I had to accept that modelling is proper work.

But it isn’t going to be work for much longer, thanks to the rise of CGI models, who are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing and undeniably superior in many ways. It’s taken a few years, but finally the fashion industry has found a way to get women out the picture altogether. Not, of course, that the fashion industry doesn’t rely on women — it needs us to buy stuff — but women do have the unfortunate habit of messing up photographs of beautiful things with their icky fleshy bodies.

Real women have dimpled thighs that need smoothing in post-production, unruly hair that needs tidying, blemishes that need editing. On shoots, they get tired and cold and they need the toilet and sometimes the clothes just won’t fit their inconvenient frames. How much more efficient to call up an agency like Brud, which specialises in producing virtual supermodels, and have your product displayed on one of their eerily plausible creations instead.

Brands including Fenty, Balmain and Swarovski have gone the CGI route, working with CGI creations such as Miquela Sousa and Shudu Gram. And Brud doesn’t stop at producing pretty faces: copywriters devise personas to match the looks, and the virtual models’ Instagram accounts have followers in the millions, commanding sponsorship fees to match. Their fakeness isn’t concealed, it’s celebrated — although the ubiquitousness of image processing means that the line between reality and unreality is surprisingly easy to drift over. The uncanny valley has been filled in.

The CGI model Miquela Sousa, alongside real humans. Credit: YouTube

Beauty has always involved artifice. Behind every perfect editorial look, there’s a hairdresser, a nutritionist, a personal trainer, an aesthetician, a make-up artist, an eyelash technician — all working to turn that woman into something worth looking at. Then there’s the stylist and the photographer, and after that the tweaks. But tweaking isn’t the preserve of glossy magazines any more: it’s built into your Zoom settings and your selfie defaults. Even those #nofilter pictures you see on the ’gram are the products of thousands of tiny digital decisions, none of which is going to have been programmed to make you look worse.

So virtual models are in a way nothing but a natural escalation, and they’re especially alluring in the Covid-era, given that the pandemic makes conventional shoots seem less like dream factories, more like superspreader events. The scope for them to muscle out humans in the “new normal” is obvious. If an online shop needs several thousand pictures to show off several thousand garments, why wouldn’t they skip the casting headache and the faff of the shoots, and use the digital option instead? If consumers don’t mind (and on the whole they don’t seem to), the only objections are likely to come from the human models losing out on work.

I will miss them, though. Seeing a model really bring it is in the same category of wonder as watching an actor pull off a bravura performance or a gymnast nail a routine. At its best, modelling isn’t just a job, it’s era-defining art — if you love fashion, there’s a thrill in seeing how a Twiggy or a Campbell or a Moss can bring a different part of herself to different photographers on different shoots, a pleasure in the interaction between the images they make and their off-page celebrity. A really great model is the embodiment of her time.

Miquela and Shudu can’t personify a decade in the same way, because they stand outside of time. They’re not actually people. Then again, this is another thing to recommend them to corporations, given that models’ personalities can be more trouble than they’re worth: plenty of influencers have talked themselves out of a contract with a spicy opinion. Brand managers can sleep tight every night knowing that their virtual representatives aren’t going to have an inconvenient meltdown or start sharing — God forbid — her political views. Digital models are a caution for any woman who might throw around her own untidy thoughts.

And maybe it’s better that fake women take the brunt of modelling, when modelling itself — however much I like to romanticise it — is a grim old business. Bishops Stortford isn’t the half of it. It’s an industry where male photographers and agents have much of the power, and girls are the product. Predation is guaranteed. For years, the photographer Terry Richardson practised an overexposed irony-sleaze aesthetic that was the perfect cover for his real-sleaze habit of sexually assaulting models. Allegations dating back to 2010 went ignored because he had the blessed quality of hotness (he took Obama’s portrait), and only in 2017 was he finally disgraced enough to become a liability.

It’s not enough to see Richardson as one bad actor. It took an entire industry to turn a blind eye and go on serving up girls to him. The same industry, in fact, that allowed Elite Models boss GĂ©rald Marie to allegedly run his agency as a trafficking ring, shipping young women wherever they were wanted and securing their compliance with promises about what he could do for their careers. It’s hard to feel huge regret for the demise of a job that’s been associated with so much abuse.

Still, replacing real models with virtual ones is only a solution in the same way that you can “solve” your woodworm by burning down your house: yes, you’ve eliminated the exploitation of women, but you’ve done it by eliminating women. And that causes another, bigger problem.

It’s bruising enough to compare yourself to the deftly touched-up living representatives of beauty — so bruising, in fact, that an alternate ecosystem of imperfect influencers has emerged. Women who are willing to celebrate their fat, their stretch marks or their acne can win big social media followings with an audience that is relieved to simply not feel freakish for once, although alternative beauty standards are still beauty standards. Hence Cosmopolitan’s “This is healthy!” New Year covers, starring models who are fat but still able to do the dancer’s yoga pose (although it’s unclear why being overweight and bendy is any healthier than being standard-model underweight and bendy).

When CGI models eliminate even the tiny human happenstance allowed to models now, they also remove the last remnants of sympathy that a woman might afford herself. Judging yourself by the standard of a hipless teenager is one level of cruelty; judging yourself against what is, effectively, a drawing of a hipless teenager is a whole step beyond. Models tell us what society has decided perfection is. It’s a shifting standard, and those shifts say something about society’s desires.

The Sixties looked for youth and informality, the Eighties sought statuesque glamour, the Nineties wanted women who looked fragile and waifish. And the Twenties want women who don’t exist. It’s of a piece with a world that would write women out of reproduction through surrogacy, out of politics by declaring them not really a group, and out of language altogether by reducing the word to representing, at best, an “identity” rather than a sex. The ultimate in femininity in 2021 is to be nothing at all.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

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Joe Blow
Joe Blow
3 years ago

“…the rise of CGI models…the fashion industry has found a way to get women out the picture altogether. Not, of course, that the fashion industry doesn’t rely on women ” it needs us to buy stuff ” but women do have the unfortunate habit of messing up photographs of beautiful things with their icky fleshy bodies.”

Oh good grief – more invented grievance. Does anyone actually believe this stuff?
It is not actually very complicated. Very simply, CGI models are cheaper, and more reliable, than real ones. Just like mechanical diggers are cheaper than actual men.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Blow

The answer to the question…..what should we be offended about today?

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Blow

I’m just waiting for someone to say that CGI models have rights too.

At least we can say that CGI models can be equally healthy at any size!

J. Hale
J. Hale
3 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

And what happens when the “woke” crowd demand ordinary looking CGI models, fat CGI, trans CGI?

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago
Reply to  J. Hale

I know – it just never ends

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Blow

It’s as if the writer thinks women are incapable of running and starting up fashion businesses.

Signme Uplease
Signme Uplease
3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Blow

Missed the point entirely. But that’s to be expected from a guy. The loss of an entire career option – whether it’s unpleasant or not – is a legitimate reason for concern. Think manufacturing jobs which were unpleasant but still provided an income. But, yeah, To hell with these women for wanting to have a job at a company that treated them with respect. Your comment reveals your misogyny and confirms this entire culture despises women – whether they’re workers OR buyers.

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
3 years ago
Reply to  Signme Uplease

No, you missed the point entirely. No one is happy that people lose their jobs to new technology. But the writer here is specifically lamenting this particular, potential career option loss because it’s mainly women who will lose work, rather than discussing the phenomenon generally. The article alludes to the problem as if it’s men or patriarchy that are vindictively selecting this profession for misogynistic motives because it will affect women, which is utter rubbish. Your comment that it’s ‘to be expected from a guy’ is very sexist.

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
3 years ago
Reply to  Signme Uplease

Ah yes, I disagree with article (written by a woman) ergo I must hate women. Do you expect to be taken seriously?

Perhaps it has escaped your attention, but the entire economy has been in the process of transformation for years, as digitization removes jobs – telephone engineering jobs, switch operators, travel agents, junior lawyers. This has not been a process that discriminates on the basis of sex. Only someone foolish or bigoted would see this as being about hating women.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Signme Uplease

The loss of an entire career option – whether it’s unpleasant or not – is a legitimate reason for concern.

Did you just admit that sometimes the “male gaze” can be a good thing?

Or did you just admit that the sneering at and judging of models is perpetrated largely by other, uglier women?

alicerowlands
alicerowlands
3 years ago
Reply to  Joe Blow

Indeed! The fact is many jobs are going to be replaced by machines – most are boring, backbreaking drudgery and good riddance – does anyone really want to go down coalmines?
Models can be a right pain – I saw a documentary years ago about models and there was Naomie Campbell being an absolute b***h to some poor minion just because she felt like it! Cow.
Good riddance to them.
The more jobs can be outsourced to machines the better – I’m all for fully automated luxury communism – bring it on!

Daniel Björkman
Daniel Björkman
3 years ago

So modelling is bad. But getting rid of modelling is also bad. And non-perfect models would also be bad. Everything is bad forever and we should all feel bad about it.

I’m curious, can you actually conceive of a situation, in any area of life, that would be, you know, good? Not just have a few maybe-kinda-possibly positive aspects in among all the angst, but actually be good and worth being uncritically happy about? Or is it explicitly against the creed and purpose of feminism to ever stop whining for two seconds?

Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers
3 years ago

“is it explicitly against the creed and purpose of feminism to ever stop whining for two seconds?”

Bingo.
And in that, you have summarised the entire grievance culture. It started a generation ago (largely with the feminists, but moved into academia and now it’s an industry) and guess what? Finding fault is not a fulfilling way to live.

I’d go for Christian (or equivalent) values. You know, charity, selflessness, humility, personal responsibility. They make me happier, at least.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Yes, I was thinking much the same thing. Like a stick-thin model, she wants to have her cake and not eat it. Or something like that. Whatever, I didn’t notice the models when they were here* and I won’t miss them when they’re gone, although I did enjoy a fashion show I attended some years ago.

*To be fair, they didn’t notice me, either.

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
3 years ago

“I’m curious, can you actually conceive of a situation, in any area of life, that would be, you know, good?”
Absolutely – journalistic onanism.

Signme Uplease
Signme Uplease
3 years ago

Missed the point entirely, but that’s not surprising from a guy. Right now, white men are calling themselves ‘Proud Boys’ because of their marginalization in this omnicidal culture. Any group having legitimate claims due to loss of income and livelihood has the right to voice their concerns. No matter how damaging a job is – coal miners come to mind – it’s still a means to survive.Thus labour unions had to be created in order to ensure a minimal balance of power.

Models, like any other worker, need to survive. Being replaced with CGI (or AI, or robots) dehumanizes ALL of us. THAT’s the point of this article. But what the hell – f*ck women who need a modelling job to survive. They can suck it up like any other worker now headed over to the unemployment lines, and perhaps joining the ranks of the homeless. As long as YOU aren’t affected, then everything is A-OK.

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
3 years ago
Reply to  Signme Uplease

Using the term “white men” as though it has any explanatory power is a strong marker for idiocy. So, I have helped you by re-writing the silliest phrase for you:
You wrote: “Right now, white men are calling themselves ‘Proud Boys’ because…”
Presumably you meant: “Right now, a few men (who happen to be mostly white) in one country are calling themselves ‘Proud Boys’ because of…”
You’re welcome…

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Signme Uplease

So it’s modeling or homelessness in your view? That seems highly unlikely.

M Spahn
M Spahn
3 years ago

Give Ditum credit – as jobs disappear she has found steady work by finding everything and its opposite offensive, such that there can never be anything pertaining to women that she can’t write an indigant column about.

Bengt Dhover
Bengt Dhover
3 years ago

So… Are we supposed to be upset about the poor models having to get real jobs or that women decide to ruin their day by comparing themselves to a CGI model instead of a digitally enhanced 18-year old model that gets molested by her photographer?

I’m honestly confused, but rest assured I have my microscopic violin at the ready for either option.

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago

Miquela and Shudu can’t personify a decade in the same way, because they stand outside of time.

Not at all. Shudu is black and Miquela is presumably Hispanic. They are entirely of their time. Presumably Shudu is a supporter of Black Lives Matter and Miquela deeply opposed to Trump’s plans to build a wall.

The very fakeness of it all is entirely of its time.

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
3 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

Miquela may not necessarily have been opposed to the Trump wall. Like an increasing number of Hispanics (or “latinx” in Wokespeak) she may have voted – digitally, of course – for the Donald.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

You’d need an upper income somewhat spoiled appearing white CGI model to be a presumed supporter of BLM. Someone who looks like their parents are attorneys or architects and doctors.

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago

“The Sixties looked for youth and informality, the Eighties sought statuesque glamour, the Nineties wanted women who looked fragile and waifish. And the Twenties want women who don’t exist. It’s of a piece with a world that would write women out of reproduction through surrogacy, out of politics by declaring them not really a group, and out of language altogether by reducing the word to representing, at best, an “identity” rather than a sex. The ultimate in femininity in 2021 is to be nothing at all.”

Could this be described as a grievance crescendo?

Real Horrorshow
Real Horrorshow
3 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

I’m not sure, I think the peak arrives in the middle with this gem:

write women out of reproduction through surrogacy

Who doesn’t know that surrogates are, in fact, women or that only a tiny fraction of pregnancies are carried out this way?

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago

I half suspect that in the first draft there was something about trans. But that was too controversial, so we got surrogacy instead.

Real Horrorshow
Real Horrorshow
3 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

I think we pretty much got that with:

out of language altogether by reducing the word to representing, at best, an “identity” rather than a sex.

Linda Brown
Linda Brown
3 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

I think you’re missing the point. It is bad enough to compare yourself, and have others compare you to a real life model, but when real people are compared to what amounts to a pixilated fantasy, there are no winner.
It is similar to pornography, a generation of young men have grown up with online porn, they (according to reports) confuse male fantasies for what actually happens relationships

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago
Reply to  Linda Brown

Linda, that is another can of worms – and if the likes of Sarah Ditum felt that much affected by the advent of CGI models, one can only guess they’ll go ballistic with the advent of AI lovers matching male sexual interests…

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Linda Brown

If those young men grow up with their needs so satisfied by CGI pr0n that they don’t need actual women – especially given the economic and criminal accusation hazard to men that broody, greedy or misandrist women represent – that will be a total win for feminists, won’t it? You hate it when men get what they want at women’s expense. Very well, in the future, they’ll get it without troubling any real women.

Women can then make their own way in the world without any ghastly men and their pervy entitled needs. Result!

Of course women will then need to buy household robots to remove spiders from the bath. That will be men’s fault too, am I right?

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago
Reply to  Linda Brown

Linda – men are notoriously insecure about the size of their p-nis, and if presented with real men of greater stature might feel a little put out.

But if said organ had been created using computer technology alone, I think we might just think – so what. What possible comparison could there be.

And this constant habit of comparing oneself with the most beautiful people on the planet, real or digital, and getting upset about it, is something that needs to be grown out of.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Linda Brown

The problem isn’t the CGI model, it’s that you’re comparing yourself to either a live model or a CGI model. That’s a problem for people to work on themselves. We can’t eliminate everything in life that might make someone uncomfortable. Parents should be working with their daughters on these issues. Once women are adults, we can’t wrap them in bubble wrap.

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago

“Women who are willing to celebrate their fat, their stretch marks or their acne”

Celebrate acne?

Toby Josh
Toby Josh
3 years ago

Whatever. A revolting industry that we’re all well rid of.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Toby Josh

I don’t suppose it was any worse than most industries. They all have their good and bad points.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 years ago
Reply to  Toby Josh

Sick to death of overpaid, pouty, stick thin models on every page – who are hardly models of the average woman anyway. Bring on the CGI models and be done.

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
3 years ago

I have heard some whining in my time, but this takes the biscuit.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Terry Needham

At least the real models can eat the biscuit now that they have been replaced and don’t have to starve themselves.

Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

🙂

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago

Presumably there will soon be CGI p-rn too, freeing women forever from exploitation in the service of male gratification.

But wait – tech experts are also working on an AI feminist complain bot to whine about it.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

You are on a top notch tear today David.

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago

judging yourself against what is, effectively, a drawing of a hipless teenager is a whole step beyond.

Being serious for a minute (not easy) the effect could be exactly the opposite. Women may make negative comparisons against real women (who have been touched up digitally) but if the model is entirely a digital creation they may simply stop making comparison at all.

m pathy
m pathy
3 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

And one could draw a digital figure any way – tall, short, fat, thin, black, one-eyed, whatever to match the fetish of the consumer or her fragile feelings of being ‘seen’. Win for all.

I have no time to waste on the loss of models. I am a self-described feminist btw.

And the 21st century is the most feminine yet – the special magical qualities of female leadership is highly vaunted and untold numbers of blokes want to wear dresses and f**k-me heels. Feminist theory is more responsible for the erasure of the biological identity of females than any other ideology – as we all know where Ms Ditum stands on the gender critical spectrum.

Toby Josh
Toby Josh
3 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

If real women are no longer getting touched up (whether digitally, or worse) then we should applaud a clear #metoo win.

sarahcynthiajohnson
sarahcynthiajohnson
3 years ago

What’s wrong with Bishop’s Stortford?

Pete Marsh
Pete Marsh
3 years ago

Getting all the grid girls fired etc. was a triumph for feminists, so I suppose getting models fired must be too.

Joe Blow
Joe Blow
3 years ago

I see images all over the place, ofr men like Anthony Joshua and Conor McGregor and George Clooney and David Beckham and Idris Elba and and and… Yet, I do not feel an ounce of discomfort or feel “judged” by their existence, or by the ubiquity of images of them. I strongly suspect that most men feel the same way. There are lots of smarter, more accomplished, fitter, stronger and more good looking men than me out there, and it will always be so. None of it matters to what I choose to do with my life.

Likewise, I see women like Naomi Campbell or Kate Moss or Monica Belluci or Halle Berry, and I think they are all astonishing to look at and I love my wife not a bit less and don’t compare her to them or wish her to look more like any of them.

Women agitate about the “oppression” they feel from (usually static) images of other women. Yet this is a choice. Women buy the clothes, women buy the make up. I suspect most men – like me – couldn’t care less about any of it. Most men barely notice when their wife “does” her hair.

This is a choice. I have this choice. I suggest we all do (perhaps other than a small minority with a significant mental illness).

If you feel oppressed by models, or their CGI renditions, go for a walk, talk to a friend, get therapy, get laid – just stop moaning about it. There will always be women prettier, smarter, sexier, or fitter than you. You cannot do much about that. Your sense of oppression is a personal choice, though.

Martin Glass
Martin Glass
3 years ago

The smarter readers will realize the larger implications of your article. Well done, and thank you!

Lyn Griffiths
Lyn Griffiths
3 years ago

Opinion on CGI – models and an industry that has always served up a desire for many individuals to look as the image depicts in its perfection. Well to see there is nothing wrong with wanting that; as a silent tool for each to make the best of what they have been born with. Though here comes the “But”, and that is we can cause in ourselves great depression when not reaching the goal of our desire. Plastic surgery, and to add many surgical and none surgical advertising that goes within that style of industry and with many other multi-million industry’s riding next to them and others that offer the ultimate guarantee of that desire. “Oh if it were so,” I would save for a year or more. But the beauty industry unless you are blessed can only offer and take your money. Where we can then in this age of sophistication suffer its side effects of anguish, lack of confidence, and to add the blame game towards our low esteem and negativity. So, we see many a beautiful face or body or both, but what darkness hides if having to achieve that look out of a fakery that can be lived with, but at what cost, and when it to fade and one had grown old. With a mind altered from the hype and the lies and it many years later the rational of what was real or not and with a body loosing its edge? Was it worth it, I suppose one hopes so.

Charles Rense
Charles Rense
3 years ago

No we won’t. Because the moment we start to miss them they’ll be back.

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago

Presumably there will soon be CGI porn too, freeing women forever from exploitation in the service of male gratification.

But wait – tech experts are also working on an AI feminist complain bot to whine about it.

J. Hale
J. Hale
3 years ago

Great opinion piece! Very astute. This is why I read UnHerd.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

This is a positive development surely?

Personally I’ve never been remotely interested in pr0n, despite being a bloke. While the performers in it might be good-looking, they aren’t attractive. And they’re not attractive because being in pr0n is on the prostitution spectrum, in that they’re having sex for money or for some other reason than it’s own sake. And prostitutes are a bit, well, yuck. Think of who’s been there. Think of the diseases.

But CGI pr0n would involve no actual women. There’d be no exploitation at all, except of the men paying to watch it. So maybe the future holds a whole new world of yuckless pr0n, in which I can watch videos of a 19-year-old Jenny Agutter having sex with Alexander the Great. Or indeed with Alexander the Great’s horse. It would be like Equus but with graphic scenes of sexual interhorse, without any actual horse being harmed in the making of this movie.

And in the same spirit, imagine a world in which there are no more models pressured into anorexia to keep their jobs.

What’s not to like?