Sociologist Ashley Mears of Boston University conducted participant observation research as a fashion model and her story is covered in a Slate article, “America’s Next Top Sociologist,” written by Libby Copeland. As indicated in the article, this kind of on-site research  continues a long tradition in sociology whether as a boxer, a cotton picker, or a prisoner.

For her research, Mears interviewed models, talent-agents, magazine editors, and others involved in the fashion industry to get their perspectives, but she also worked as a model herself and recorded her experiences after walking runways and attending casting calls. She found that there is a glut of young women from around the world all seeking to make it in the industry, and, as a result, the pay and working conditions are poor for most.As noted in the article:

A day-long shoot for Vogue pays a paltry $150, for instance, while a shoot for Britain’s influential i-D magazine, which Mears calls “one of the most sought-after editorial clients for a model,” pays absolutely nothing, not even the cost of transportation or a copy of the magazine for the model’s portfolio.

The industry works like a winner-take-all market, with a few very successful winners and an abundance of others who never experience much success.

Age also plays a role, and the window of opportunity in the high-fashion industry is narrow. By the time a model is in her mid-twenties, she has likely aged-out and is seen as “ancient by industry standards.” Mears reports that, given the number of women competing, the likelihood for success ends up being more like a lottery than being based on appearance or ability alone. And yet, she states, “You realize the probability is slight but the possibilty is enticing.”

Mears has written a book reporting on her research, titled Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model (University of California Press).

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