Underage Models: Has the Fashion Industry Finally Gone Too Far?

Underage Models: Has the Fashion Industry Finally Gone Too Far?
10-year-old model Thylane Loubry Blondeau in French Vogue
(French Vogue)

Why any parents would permit their 7-year-old daughter to roam the streets of New York in fishnets and a mini tutu is beyond me. But that is precisely what I saw on New York’s Upper West Side this Halloween. In spite of Sandy’s wrath, trick-or-treaters trotted from door to door, building to building, asking for candy. Many boys were dressed as their favorite sports stars. Parents made an effort by throwing on wigs. But too many girls were dolled up in sexually suggestive garb that seemed more appropriate for 20-something co-eds on college campuses or in Midtown bars. An 8-year-old dressed as a witch is adorable. But a sexy witch? Appalling. I fail to comprehend why a parent would deem this OK, but what’s more concerning is that girls who haven’t even hit pre-teendom seem compelled to dress “sexy.”

It’s easy to blame children’s observed proclivity for racy attire on their celebrity role models — Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and America’s guilty pleasure, Honey Boo Boo, aren’t exactly opting for modest frocks. But the fashion industry has to take some of the blame, too. For decades, fashion has been accused of sexualizing women in ad campaigns and editorial spreads, all for the sake of art. Or money. Or some combination of the two. But in recent years, magazines and luxury labels have increasingly sexualized girls as young as 10. No matter how you spin it, that’s not chic. It’s not edgy. It’s dangerous, tasteless, and harmful, both to the “modelettes” featured in these images and to the little girls who see them and think they represent the ideal for youthful beauty. Last year, an American Psychological Association task force reported that such images can contribute to low self esteem and eating disorders in young girls.

In 2011, French Vogue ran a spread with then 10-year-old Thylane Loubry Blondeau in heavy makeup and stilettos. One image showed the mini-model seductively lying on her stomach on a tiger skin rug, her sultry macquillaged eyes staring into the camera. Another featured her reclining on a leopard print bed in haute couture and high heels, pouting for the photographer. Of course, every little girl fantasizes about breaking into Mommy’s closet and playing dress-up. But I hardly think posing for a camera with a suggestive come hither look is part of the fairytale.

Marc Jacobs put a 17-year-old Dakota Fanning in his 2011 ads, which, to the designer’s credit, were more sweet than sexual. Except for his Lola perfume ad, which showed Fanning sitting on the ground in a hiked-up polka dot dress with the phallic perfume bottle placed on her crotch. The caption read, “Oh, Lola!” The ad was banned in the UK for sexualizing children.

Just last week, Chanel stirred up controversy when it named 15-year-old Ondria Harding as the face of its 2013 campaign. “She doesn’t look 15… she looks 18 or 19,” Karl Lagerfeld told WWD, as if it were a viable argument.

Hardin was also featured in a sexed-up Prada campaign last year, which showed her strewn across a couch on her stomach with her boot-clad legs crossed in the air.

Vogue and the CFDA have both placed bans on working with models under 16. But that hardly seems to be having an effect. Marc Jacobs had Hardin flaunt her stuff on his fall 2012 New York runway. And Diane Von Furstenberg, the president of the CFDA, allowed (although apparently unwittingly) 15-year-old Hailey Clauson to walk in her show last year. Von Furstenberg issued an apology, saying, “From now on, I will instruct my casting people to demand IDs.” So does this mean the modeling agents, who are supposed to be looking out for these girls, are to blame? Are they pushing their clients like child prostitutes?

Underage models seem to be popping up at high frequency these days, but this is certainly not a new phenomenon. Artist Richard Prince famously reproducd a nude photograph of Brooke Shields that was taken in 1976 when she was only 10 years old. The work was featured in Prince’s 2009 exhibition at the Tate Modern, but was removed after Scotland Yard warned that it violated obscenity laws. Shields’s role as a child prostitute in the 1979 film “Pretty Baby,” as well as her iconic Calvin Klein jeans ads shot when she was 15, caused widespread criticism. However, she has stated that, looking back, she doesn’t feel these images were harmful. But then we have Kate Moss. In her November interview with Vanity Fair, the model reported that her sultry Calvin Klein ads with Mark Walhberg, shot when she was “17 or 18,” contributed to a nervous breakdown. “I felt really bad about straddling this buff guy. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks. I thought I was going to die,” she said. What underage girl could feel like herself when she’s placed in a sexual situation, whether real or “staged,” for which she’s not ready?

In regards to damaging a young viewer, there is the age-old argument that parents should shelter their children from such magazines or images. But when Chanel or Marc Jacobs puts up a billboard featuring their 15-year old starlets, what are girls supposed to do? Close their eyes and keep walking? 

Come on, fashion. I know we’re trying to push boundaries here, but are we really making kiddie porn the next big thing? There are plenty of beautiful, legal girls trying to make it as models. Pick them for your sexy photo shoots instead of their little sisters. Perhaps then, our 7-year-olds can dress up like princesses. Or astronauts. Or doctors. But, you know, not the sexy kind.