Despite the many feminist slogan t-shirts you can buy in stores, the fashion industry is far from championing the rights of women. In fact, it is an extremely oppressive industry in many ways, impacting women all across the supply chain.
Emma Hakansson outlines five of the ways that fashion, particularly fast fashion, is anti-feminist. She also share five ways you can make a difference to the industry, helping it to live up to the feminist slogan it peddles to us.
Please be aware that this article references sexual assault and r*pe.
ONE: Garment workers are objectified, underpaid and even sexually abused
Many garment workers sew and make clothes in what is considered ‘modern day slavery conditions’. As the vast majority of garment workers in the fashion industry are women of colour, this is an intersectional feminist issue. The women working in this industry are denied fair payment, safety and respect.
While sewing and making garments requires a lot of skill, only a minuscule portion of garment workers are paid a living wage – 2% of them. A living wage is nothing exceptional, simply a wage that covers a person’s basic needs. This is different from a minimum wage, which may not ensure that someone can afford housing, food, utilities and other essentials for a basic but comfortable and secure life. A living wage should be the minimum accepted wage for any person. Unfortunately, it is not.
Many garment workers are forced to work in unsafe conditions. When we consider feminist issues, the most relevant of these dangers comes in the form of sexual safety. Many women working to make garments are sexually harassed and assaulted. In Cambodia, that figure is a staggering 1 in 3 women.
A harrowing outcome of this widespread misogyny made headlines in late 2020, when a 20-year-old Indian garment worker named Jeyasre Kathirvel was allegedly raped and murdered by her supervisor in a sweatshop supplying H&M. This sweatshop is, according to the women working there, full of a history of sexual harassment, slut-shaming, bullying, beating and assault of women by men in charge.
How you can help:
If you’re going to buy new clothing, shoes or accessories, only buy them from brands that can prove to you that their supply chain is ethical, and supportive of women. A brand that is genuinely ethical will be able to tell you where clothes are made. They will be able to prove that their workers are paid a living wage, and that they have systems in place to address workplace harassment. They will tell you about tangible actions, rather than just spew buzzwords about ‘girl power’ to you.
You can also help to ensure living wages and protections for women making clothes by supporting campaigns by Clean Clothes Campaign.
TWO: Models are exploited and sexually assaulted by photographers, designers and even agents
Being a model is not as glamorous as it might seem – trust me, I’ve worked in the industry for years, which has allowed me to collect a large collection of horror stories about what my friends and I have experienced.
Models are told to lose weight constantly. But they’re not only told they must, they are watched over, denied their privacy and threatened to ensure they do. Models are measured constantly, told what they can eat, if they can eat, and what they can do.
Agencies that book jobs for models do not offer those they make money from many legal protections that other workers would expect, either.
Perhaps most distressing is how common sexual harassment, assault and rape is in the industry. When I told some model friends I was assaulted by a photographer at work when I was 18 years old, most of them shared similar experiences.
Shit Model Management, an anonymous model-run page amplified by Diet Prada, collated a public black list full of photographers, designers, agencies and other industry professionals who have sexually abused and raped models. Most recently, the team collected numerous accounts of sexual harassment by famous designer Alexander Wang.
It’s important to note that some of these models are men, too. However, sexual assault continues to be a feminist issue. Often, it is toxic masculinity that causes sexual assault, with a false narrative pushed by patriarchy that to be manly is to be dominating.
How you can help:
Support the work of Model Alliance to help secure fair treatment and legal rights for models that are too often denied.
Believe and support models who come forward with stories about sexual abuse, and amplify their message.
If you are a consumer, do not buy clothes from predatory designers. If you are a designer yourself, ensure that the creative team you are working with is a safe and respectful one – cross reference with the black list. (Note: occasionally this list is removed due to death threats the author faces, and an asterisk next to a name means more than three allegations.)
THREE: Women who buy clothes are made to feel unworthy, unless they buy more stuff
The body shaming of women doesn’t stop with models, but is pervasive and suffocating for many consumers of fashion. The fashion industry has a serious problem with size inclusion – often not catering to a significant portion of women in the world because they are larger than what is arbitrarily considered ‘standard size’. While model diversity is improving, larger models are still not celebrated as beautiful in the way that slimmer models are.
The fashion industry claims that models are selected to be ‘aspirational’, implying that everyone should wish to be a young, thin, white woman. This beauty standard is white-washed and for many people, simply unrealistic, and so unfair.
‘Is your beach body ready?’ Fashion advertisements also tell women that they are not attractive enough, not thin enough, but also not curvy enough, not interesting enough, and not sexy enough if they do not buy new products. Clothing designed to alter your silhouette, to hide parts of your body, are becoming more common. Similar problems exist not only in the fashion industry, but the intertwined beauty industry.
Sexist advertisements that present women as objects for the consumption of men continue to be released – even those that are clearly violent, glorifying and sexualising abuse of women. Such advertisements tell women that they exist for the male gaze, and that to be sexy they must not only buy more clothes and spend more money, but be submissive.
How you can help:
Report sexist advertisements you see on social media and in the streets.
Contact brands who are encouraging over-consumption and spreading messages with anti-feminist undertones to let them know what you think about it, and whether you will continue to support the brand because of it.
Ask brands to carry a more diverse size range, and to use a more diverse range of models.
FOUR: Female animals are sexually violated in fashion supply chains
Intersectional feminism is genuine feminism. It’s the kind of feminism that exists not only for the benefit of white women that the fashion industry celebrate as beautiful, but all women. It recognises that feminism must address the way that someone’s race, sexuality or size can also play a part in how they face misogyny.
Most of the time, we do not consider that intersectional feminism also consider feminine individuals from other species groups. However, we should.
In the leather industry for example, cows are forcibly impregnated through a sexually violating process called ‘artificial insemination’. During this process, farmers force their hand and arm up the rectum of the cow so that they can insert semen into the vagina. Cows are confined and unable to free themselves during this distressing process. This is a form of violation most commonly associated with dairy, but calf skins from the dairy industry are extremely valuable and used often for leather goods production.
While these cows may not be ‘women’, they are feminine individuals who have their sexual organs exploited for the sake of profit, until they are slaughtered. At the root of this system of exploitation is a denial of bodily autonomy and consent. These animals are denied their right to choose what they are comfortable with, and are dominated.
These practices are not in line with feminist values. And in fact, a denial of consent, and objectification, is seen all across the fashion industry’s use of animals. You can see PETA’s campaign, ‘Be a Sweater’, which looks at objectification of models, human women and animals, below. Note, it is graphic.
How you can help:
Explain the lack of consent and autonomy that animals face in the fashion industry to a friend.
Learn more about the intersections between feminism and animal rights by reading Carol J Adam’s book, The Sexual Politics of Meat.
FIVE: Women in communities surrounding slaughterhouses are at higher risk of abuse
All oppression is connected, and so it is perhaps not surprising that the industry that denies animal autonomy creates a culture of human sexual violation, too.
Slaughterhouse workers are exposed to and commit violent acts every single day, so that people who choose to eat and wear animals don’t have to. This work is psychologically traumatising. Perpetration-induced traumatic stress (PITS) is similar to PTSD with a fundamental difference: the trauma and stress comes not from being a victim, but being ‘the direct reason for another being’s trauma’. Suffered by soldiers and slaughterhouse workers alike, symptoms, as with PTSD, include ‘drug and alcohol abuse, anxiety, panic, depression, increased paranoia, a sense of disintegration, dissociation or amnesia, which are incorporated into the “psychological consequences” of the act of killing.’
An article in The Yale Global Health Review cites a study that refers to a ‘spillover’ of violence from slaughterhouses to the communities surrounding them. Paid to act violently towards non-human animals, these traumatised workers start to lash out at those around them, both at work and at home.
Data has shown that across 500 US counties, communities surrounding slaughterhouses fall victim to disproportionately high numbers of violent offences, including sexual assault and rape. Violence against women is unacceptable and not justified by the perpetrator being traumatised, but it is critical we understand the root of the problem to fix it and protect us all.
How you can help:
Contact your favourite fashion brands and tell them that you want to see more animal-free clothing from them, and less made from animals that are killed in discriminatory and dangerous supply chains.
Help spread awareness about the ways that animal supply chains in fashion contribute to the endangerment of women by sharing this article.
Featured image at top: SuSanA Secretariat, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
This article was originally published on Collective Fashion Justice and is republished here with permission.
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