|Title||Associate Professor of Sociology|
|Education||University of Georgia|
|Alma mater||New York University|
|Thesis||Pricing Beauty: The Production of Value in Fashion Modeling Markets (2009)|
|Main interests||Culture, markets, work|
|Notable works||Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model|
Ashley Mears is an American writer, sociologist, and former fashion model. She is currently an associate professor of sociology at Boston University. Mears is the author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, and is regularly quoted in media as an academic expert in the culture and economics of fashion.
Mears grew up near Atlanta, Georgia. To supplement her regular job at a movie theater, she entered a modeling contest, won agency representation, and then started modeling part-time at the age of 16. Mears attended the University of Georgia but continued her modeling work by spending summers working overseas. After completing her undergraduate education, she spent a year modeling in Asia, then moved to New York City at the age of 23 to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology. In New York she was again scouted for modeling jobs, and decided to focus her graduate research on the culture and economics of the modeling industry. She lied about her age to get modeling jobs, then conducted a covert ethnographic study by taking notes and interviewing fellow models, scouts, and agents while working as a model in New York and London, including multiple appearances on the runway at New York Fashion Week. She earned her Ph.D. from New York University in 2009.
In 2011 her book Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model was published by the University of California Press. Sociologist Heather Laine Talley, writing in the American Journal of Sociology, noted that while Pricing Beauty is about "how fashion insiders create aesthetic value," it also examines "the organization of markets, the process of cultural production, and reproduction of inequalities." Mears found that most fashion models operate against their short-term economic interests by accepting low-paying jobs that they hope will lead to greater recognition and higher-prestige jobs, but that very few models ever successfully attain such recognition, with the rest gradually aging out of the industry, sometimes while in debt to their modeling agencies, or switching to more lucrative but less prestigious commercial modeling.
Pricing Beauty identifies the industry's idiosyncratic beauty standards as a major obstacle to success for models, not only in preferring "size-zero" body types, but in preferring white women above other women even within the "size-zero" category. Like other "ethnic" models, Mears was specifically advised not to mention her Korean heritage at castings. Mears concluded that industry insiders were not simply reflecting social preferences, but were actively producing beauty images designed to reproduce what sociologist Laura Grindstaff, in her review for Gender & Society, called "the gendered and racialized value hierarchies attached to beauty." A review in The Chronicle of Higher Education criticized this conclusion, suggesting that "Mears's attempts to make the numbers support her critique of the fashion industry for its whiteness reveal more about her wish to expose it than anything else."Publishers Weekly noted that Pricing Beauty was "probably too complex for the average reader" but praised the book as "a well-researched, well-written, and thorough study of the industry."
Mears has also written for The New York Times about her research after Pricing Beauty, including her covert ethnographic research on women recruited by promoters to attend VIP parties and nightlife events. In addition to her own publications, Mears is regularly cited by print and web media on issues in culture, markets, and work, such as why many models come from one region of the United States, how celebrity scandals affect the reputation of popular hotels and nightspots, whether fashion modeling is indentured servitude, whether "sexbots" will replace spouses, and the emotional labor of women in the workplace.