Credit: Lydia Hudgens 

Robyn Lawley: AI-generated images of women in modelling is as scary as it sounds

She’s a living doll. Sentient yet pliable. Obedient yet desired. Malleable into whatever we wish to make her. She’s AI.

Written by Robyn Lawley

“I’ve just hired a new model. She’s perfect for the campaign, she’ll do everything we want, I don’t have to worry about her eating, she doesn’t even require food! She’s also a fraction of the price than that other, human model because we don’t need a photographer, a  studio or hair and makeup…. And yes, we can put her into any position, in any outfit we want with no worries about consent.”

No, before you ask, that’s not the opening dialogue of a science fiction film some incels wrote in their mother’s basement, but instead, the kind of casual conversation we could be hearing on the set of photoshoots before too long.

She’s a living doll. Sentient yet pliable. Obedient yet desired. Malleable into whatever we wish to make her. She’s AI.

Since I first started my career, I have witnessed the rise of digital editing. As a model, I’ve been made to look skinnier, bigger, younger, older, shorter, and taller. I’ve had items digitally removed from my body, or digitally placed onto my body. I’ve witnessed the scenery go from a London studio to the Bahamas, all via digital editing. 

I’ve been truly disturbed and completely transparent throughout my career about the amount of digital editing occurring without my permission or knowledge, and I have written numerous articles about the issue. Why is it so important? Because these images are used to sell fashion and products to real-life women like me.  

As a mother of a daughter, the idea that she will be comparing herself to images of women and girls who don’t exist is absolutely terrifying to me. Body image issues and eating disorders are already an increasing problem.  

I have always been open about what goes on behind the scenes so women know how my images are made and don’t try to compare themselves to Photoshop… but at least I’m a real person and can speak about these problems. An AI female-shaped render cannot speak for herself. Her voice, if she has one, is programmed by the men, rarely women, who made her. I urge you to deeply contemplate the gravity of that and the repercussions for all of us, but particularly women who have fought so hard, for so long for our voices to be heard.  But don’t just take my word for it.

Acclaimed journalist and author Tracey Spicer is somewhat of an AI expert these days, as her latest book Man-Made explores the inherent gender bias in our technology and artificial intelligence spheres. She acknowledges, “The problem is really deep and complex, so the solutions must be multi-faceted.” 

My worries have now been amplified to flat-out panic, hence my petition calling for an end to AI-generated images of women, especially barring appropriate regulation. We’re no longer just dealing with the small changes of a model’s body, but the complete fabrication of a human being. Mostly female, artificially made models that look and sound just as real as a human woman.  

They have their own social media pages with hundreds of thousands, some millions, of followers. They model fashion from all types of brands. Many are already earning as much as a supermodel.  

I believe we are definitely entering a new era of body dysmorphia, comparing our human bodies and diverse beauty to something that’s been created in code.  

Some companies like Levi’s claim that they use AI models to help supplement “human models” and increase the “number and diversity of our models.” Pointed cough – You mean, instead of hiring diverse available human fashion models?

Levi’s issued a statement in March saying that they “do not see this pilot as a means to advance diversity or as a substitute for the real action that must be taken to deliver on our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals”. However, it’s outrageous corporate double talk. It really begs the question, how many real models will be impacted?

There are thousands of models of various nationalities and ethnicities all over the world who are available to hire for these shoots and be the true visual representation we need to see.  

But the only way to make AI understand that problem according to Spicer would be to enlist “more women and people from marginalised communities in powerful roles in artificial intelligence”.

“As members of civil society,  consumers, and workers, we often forget about the influence we can wield within democratic societies,” she says. 

Sara Ziff, founder of the advocacy group The Model Alliance is also concerned. Speaking to The Guardian, she said that “capitalizing on someone else’s identity to the exclusion of hiring people who are actually Black could be compared to Blackface”. 

“We’ve received an increasing number of calls from models who after receiving body scans found that the rights to their body were being assigned to a company, which meant that they were losing the rights to their own image,” Ziff added. 

Most models, except a few, make the majority of their income from modelling catalogs and online fashion, not runways and magazines. Runway and editorial magazine shoots often don’t pay more than minimum wage unless you are a celebrity model. Of course, a great runway or magazine opportunity can turn you into a celebrity, so everyone is happy for that chance. However, these smaller shoots are often the main source of income for a working model and most creatives.  

This isn't just happening slowly or in a supplementary way as some brands have suggested. My whole industry is being replaced. Not only the fit models, but the photographer, the stylist, the makeup artist, the studios and the hair stylist. 

E-commerce platform Shopify for instance now has a plug for e-commerce brands to create their own AI images with hyper realistic human appearing renders to sell products. The customers haven’t even noticed.  

There are now multiple companies, completely focusing on fashion and AI-generated models including the artificially generated model Aitana López whose man-made created profile is of a 25-year-old from Barcelona. The owner of her image has racked up over 200,000 fans, earning over 10k a month on Instagram alone. She is not even real!  

This will impact the generations ahead of us in ways we cannot even conceive of yet.  No one knows who’s who, or who is behind the computer screen. The use of this technology is what is truly both groundbreaking, yes, but horrifying, absolutely.  So what to do?

Well, Spicer believes that “social change starts with conversation and ends with action. We should be talking to our children, neighbours and friends about bias in AI, to build critical thinking around this complex area. Together, we can create a future that's human-made, not man-made.”

But, how do we have conversations about AI that mean something? What can we actually actively do, you and me that isn’t leaving this up to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk? Spicer has ideas for that too. 

“Boycott AI companies with toxic workplaces, and those that produce biased bots. Ask your co-workers and employers about where AI is used within the organisation, and whether it's been through bias audits. Contact your local MP to say that the government needs to do something about the rampant advance of AI without appropriate regulation and legislation. In our own homes, we can do what's called 'machine teaching'. This involves putting more diversity – and realistic images – into generative AI, like Midjourney or ChatGPT. 

As if the warping of the fashion industry wasn’t enough for AI, it’s also completely amplified the pornographic industry world as many people are also using AI-generated fake porn. Users can upload the face of their favourite personality now and have them performing in porn videos for them. I know, I know. You’re wondering what on earth is being done about this? How are countries reacting? What are the rules? The truth is, there are very little.

So far, the EU is way ahead of the pack with a provisional agreement on its AI Act which sets us up with a framework for the future. The US remains paralysed by its commitments to the free market and its willingness to allow big tech companies to self-regulate, which we all know worked spectacularly with tobacco companies, don’t we? Not. As for Australia, we’ve dedicated a celebratory virtue-signalling month to the safe and responsible use of AI but have not made any tangible moves to regulate the sector.

That’s not OK. Any day now, I could have my face used to perform something I never agreed to. My daughter could. So could you and yours. It’s terrifying and we should all be screaming for legislation as loudly as possible right now, today, this minute!  

For more information about our petition calling for regulation of AI and to stop the use of AI-generated women, click here