Meat Market: #MeToo and the ethics of fashion
Fashion has become a genuine guilty pleasure for those who support the industry despite its unflattering angles. It feels like every month there’s a new revelation about the true ethical costs of the multi-billion dollar industry. High pollution in fast fashion, a complete disregard for factory safety, sexual predators, a toxic environment for underage models: the fashion industry has it all. Meat Market by Juno Dawson is the industry sans airbrush, a confronting novel for any young woman who has gazed in adoration at a model in a magazine.
Who is making our clothes?
The garment creation processes of popular labels have been under increasing scrutiny since the horrific Rana Plaza collapse in 2013. The Bangladesh complex housed factories for dozens of global fashion brands and its collapse killed at least 1132 people. More than 2500 others were injured. It’s considered one of the worst recorded industrial accidents.
Although Meat Market only briefly touches on the plight of garment workers in developing countries, it is a subtle and powerful introduction to the issue.
In the novel, Jana is caught off guard by a question about a fictional factory disaster. She has no idea who makes the clothes she models and the appalling conditions they work in. Sadly, this is true for many everyday consumers despite increased awareness campaigns and a blossoming eco-conscious blogging community.
Multinational companies are still putting profits before people, sourcing the cheapest labour and preying on vulnerable communities with some of the lowest wages in the world and dangerous working conditions.
Following the Rana Plaza collapse, major high street brands were pressured into publishing lists revealing their suppliers and subcontractors. But that can still be an ethical grey area and, in many cases, deliberately confusing for consumers. Brands are also using the increased awareness around fast fashion in manipulative ways to ‘greenwash’ their marketing (read more here).
Fashion and the ‘ideal’ body image
It’s a sad indictment on the fashion industry that I went into Meat Market expecting the major focus to be on disordered eating. It was indeed explored, but with more nuance than I expected.
Jana is naturally tall and slim, but still the target of cruel comments about her appearance despite being the fashion industry’s ‘ideal’. She is teased for her androgynous look, for not appearing ‘feminine’ enough. One of the strengths of Meat Market is this detailed and careful exploration of how the industry’s lifeblood is built on selling an ideal of beauty to women who feel their bodies are somehow lacking.
Body shaming can be emotionally devastating for anybody. So many women, myself included, have firm beliefs about our bodies stemming from throwaway lines heard in our teenage years. It doesn’t matter if you’re being told to eat more or less, the message is the same: you are not enough.
It is, however, important to acknowledge that thin privilege exists. Speaking to Self, Sonya Renee Taylor (author of The Body is Not an Apology) said thin people were not “disproportionately misdiagnosed as a result of medical fatphobia”.
“There simply is no systemic equivalent between skinny shaming and our society's promotion of fat hatred,” she said.
In an age where self-love and acceptance is championed, it is vital that discussions about body image are about more than just ‘fat’ or ‘thin’. Instead, they need to explore the ways our societal expectations of body shape have created such disordered thinking for so many women.
Of course, the fashion industry is the most prominent perpetrator of this. Meat Market is the perfect catalyst for young adults to start inspecting and unpicking those damaging ideals.
Exploring wealth and class in fashion
Perhaps my favourite aspect of Meat Market was the way economic inequality was discussed. Jana lives in a council estate in London, her accent so vivid even in print. Money, and the overwhelming amount on offer, is one of the reasons her parents agree to let her join the modelling agency.
The novel’s ‘it girl’ Clara Keys was from the same estate as Jana, something which creates an instant bond between the two. And Clara is unapologetically realistic about the industry that has turned her into a household name. At one point she tells Jana: “Just don’t forget what this all is. It’s selling clothes to rich-as-fuck people. Nothing else”.
Quite early in her career, Jana is forced to drop out of school to attend the shoots she’s booked internationally. Again, Meat Market is unflinchingly honest. Jana doesn’t magically manage her A-levels and a high-profile modelling career. No, she drops out. That too is a decision mired in stereotypes, even in 2019.
Dropping out of school means that modelling soon becomes Jana’s only chance to make money. While there are many post-school study options these days, this outcome highlights how easily young girls can become trapped in an industry that’s both mentally and physically damaging.
Thoughtful and nuanced explorations of economic inequality are sorely needed in YA fiction. We need novels which don’t paint people as ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ but show how low income can make it near impossible to leave unhealthy relationships or toxic work environments.
#MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse: fashion’s #MeToo Movement
The #metoo and #TimesUp movements have become cultural phenomenons, now filtering down into fiction with palpable impact. Of particular influence on Meat Market was the #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse campaign, exposing sexual predators fashion industry.
In the novel, Jana is placed in a situation which sent chills down my spine. I was on edge as she walked into a hotel room for a ‘casting’ I knew would end badly. Although Jana eventually speaks out, Meat Market delicately explores the gamut of emotions involved in talking publicly about abuse of power.
As #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse showed, the situations Jana and other women in Meat Market experience are far from fictional. That movement was spearheaded by model and activist Cameron Russell who shared stories of other industry insiders in heartbreaking Instagram posts.
"Our industry has a culture of exploitation and sexual harassment and assault. This means the perpetrators are numerous, not one, not five, not ten, but likely in the hundreds. They are well known, and unknown, many are still working," she said on social media.
Sexual assault in the workplace is, of course, not an easy topic to explore in fiction for young adults. But Meat Market is confronting reality without explicit, potentially traumatising, detail. There is a happy ending, or at least a resolution, which is not always forthcoming in reality but it’s understandable in YA and far from saccharine.
“For something all about beauty it’s so bloody ugly”
Meat Market is not an easy book to read in terms of subject matter, but it is utterly compelling. Jana’s voice is raw and real, her experience mirroring so many other young women and giving voice to their pain.
It is a vital book for young women, exposing the truth of the industry we’ve been conditioned to admire.