Model behavior

It’s a story I’ve recounted as a humorous anecdote, but it’s certainly got an edge to it: During my harrowing tenure at a fashion publication that shall remain nameless–realistically, some devils actually wear as much J.Crew as anything else–I had the job of asking one of our stylists to book a few older models. We’d had a few surprisingly young business-chic models and mothers-of-the-bride, but the precipitating event was a story about smoothing bras, illustrated by models in their mid-teens who had neither back fat nor, frankly, breasts. The conversation went something like this:

ME. [Stylist], I need you to start booking some older models for some of our shoots.

STYLIST. Older? You mean, like, 25?

ME. …

STYLIST. Because their skin usually doesn’t photograph as well as the younger girls.

Which was the point at which I realized I was not merely old but ancient for the fashion industry.

Now that I’m no longer a slave to fashion in a nearly literal sense, I can look back on that and laugh. But it’s also a sign of the emphasis on youth in the industry: While the look is, for the most part, overt sexuality, the models themselves need to be damn near prepubescent to provide the breastless, hipless bodies that slide effortlessly into high-end designer clothes, and the clear, poreless skin that photographs to the satisfaction of editors and stylists. And that’s nothing that anyone with any level awareness hasn’t noticed.

This is a topic that’s already been discussed before, even on this hallowed blog, with the release of French Vogue’s December 2010 issue. It featured a truly creepy editorial spread of young models (not “young” as in “their skin photographs well”; “young” as in “no, you can’t bring your My Little Pony to the shoot”) dressed in grownup clothes and makeup and laid out as Cadeaux–“gifts”–for, one assumes, the reader.

It came up for me again with a blog post by Jezebel’s Jenna Sauers about ten-year-old model Thylane Lena-Rose Blondeau, one of the micro-models in the offending spread. Sauers has a different opinion from mine about that editorial–she finds it “refreshing,” while I find it “disturbing”; she reads it as self-aware satire, while I don’t see satire when those girls may well be in those same clothes and those same poses less than five years from now–but we agree on the hypersexualization of Blondeau’s portfolio.

The most obvious infraction is, of course, that Vogue Paris editorial, which could have had the lighthearted spirit of little girls playing dress-up in Mom’s (ridiculously expensive, in this case) clothes and makeup, like so many of us did as kids. (Hells yeah, gold lame dresses and tiaras.) But there’s no lightheartedness or playfulness there. There’s none of the unselfconsciousness that let childhood be so much fun. There isn’t even the “smizing” that Tyra Banks seems to find essential for budding models (all evidence to the contrary). There’s just Blondeau’s dull eyes and pursed, painted, parted lips of a hard-to-get siren, laid out on a tiger-skin rug or placed in a chair with her skirt carefully tucked out of the way to bare her legs nearly to the hip.

Contrast that with her Vogue Enfants cover, where she’s barefaced, running through a field of wheat in a cute white dress and seemingly having a great time. She has plenty of pictures that seem to depict an actual, frequently happy, ten-year-old, laughing or dancing or looking legitimately grumpy. And then they throw in a photo of Blondeau in beads, feathered headdress, and little else but an expression that my jaded eye reads as, “Did you get the shot? Can I put my shirt back on now?”

(And for the record, I categorically reject any argument that it’s just art and that anyone who sees anything more prurient than a beautiful pair of eyes and a great bone structure is the one with the dirty mind. The photographer who called for the pouting over-the-shoulder shot or the intense stare in nearly bare chest and low-slung jeans–he is the one who wanted anything out of a child except childhood.)

The “too sexy, too soon” is obvious there–no matter your opinions on teenage sexuality and personal agency, ten is too young to paint yourself up in Tom Ford’s Black Orchid and pout for the camera. Blondeau has no reason to know anything about being sexy. She has no frame of reference for sexy–she knows look at me, turn this way, point your chin down, open your mouth just a little, look bored, open your eyes, close your eyes, now arch your back, now look sleepy. And while it’s definitely a sign of too sexy too soon, it’s also a sign of… obedience.

And that’s one of the real values of younger models over their older counterparts. An 18-year-old can, with an appropriate application of diet pills and cigarettes, present the body of a twelve-year-old. But if you want a biddable girl who doesn’t know enough to speak out against things that she isn’t comfortable with, you need someone inexperienced in the ways of the industry, awed and a little bit afraid. And maybe ten years old is a bit early for that, but just a few years down the road, her fellow models are going to be wandering into the lions’ den.

In spring of last year, 15-year-old model Lindsey Wixson made minor waves when, at a photo shoot for W, she asked for a flesh-colored bra to go under a see-through top they had her wearing. That’s quite the show of ovaries for a model who hadn’t yet developed the capital to make requests, and it’s impressive that W actually gave in. “I’m 15 and even though I freaked out a little bit, I know for a fact that my mom would freak ten times as much,” Wixson said. “I just couldn’t be flashing everyone out there.”

Shortly thereafter, though, she was walking Lacoste’s Fall 2010 RTW in a sheer blouse over bare breasts. [Take note: The linked post opens with photo of that look.] Without being inside her head, of course, I can take a guess at the thought process: For a relative unknown, the mere suggestion that she’d be reluctant to play ball would be enough to get her booted, while the hundreds of other girls with their noses pressed against the glass would be willing to walk naked in a dog collar for the sake of working Fashion Week. It makes me wonder how “freaked out” Wixson might have been during the show, and if her mom freaked “ten times as much” when she saw the pictures later.

Obviously, a major part of the solution is to de-fang the fashion industry, at the very least pushing back against the exploitation of sixteen-year-olds scouted in malls and fourteen-year-olds plucked out of Eastern Europe. But at the risk of sounding fatalistic, this isn’t something that hasn’t been going on for half a century, and it isn’t something that collapsed during any wave of feminism or general protest. Oscar de la Renta, who once allegedly refused to sell larger sizes because “I clothe women, I don’t upholster furniture,” now offers up to a size 16 (and, for that matter, upholsters furniture), but his models remain a strict size 0. The industry evolves slowly and isn’t fond of self-policing.

The fashion and beauty industries and society as a whole can’t progress without a full generation of shitkicking girls, little Lindsey Wixsons at work, at school, and at home who feel comfortable speaking up when they feel something isn’t right. The message we tell girls about inappropriate touching in their bathing-suit areas should carry over into everyday life, so that girls can develop an instinct and a sense of self. That isn’t something mystical that just appears–our instincts are the sum of our experiences coupled with pattern recognition, and to develop them, our girls need a safe, supportive, and encouraging environment to learn, make mistakes, and come to trust themselves. They’re not going to learn it taking instruction from a fashion photographer who doesn’t have their best interest at heart, they’re not going to learn it free-ranging around unguided, and they’re not going to learn it with a steady stream of propaganda–any propaganda, good or bad–pouring into their ears.

We talk a lot about the choices we make in the way we outwardly present our feminism–makeup or none, high heels or none, men’s or women’s clothes, sparkles or studs or nothing at all. And we talk about modeling feminism for the girls who are coming after us to help guide them in a positive direction. As part of that, we need to make sure we’re sending a strong message about disobedience. Our girls need to know that while they do have to play a respectful part in the social contract, they also have the right to stand up for themselves when they feel the need, even if it’s against authority figures. Even if it’s against their friends. Even if it’s against us.

There’s no guarantee that they won’t still end up walking runways somewhere, if that’s their choice. But if they’re comfortable turning down that job because the clothes don’t feel right, turning down that guy (or girl) because the timing doesn’t feel right, or even just passing on that cigarette with Agyness Deyn because frayed, acid-washed denim vests just plain aren’t right, we’ll have done our job. And then we’ll mooch off of them, because they’ll be making more money than us and have way better wardrobes.

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26 Responses to Model behavior

  1. raya says:

    An 18-year-old can, with an appropriate application of diet pills and cigarettes, present the body of a twelve-year-old.

    I don’t comment here often, mostly due to language barriers, but sentences like these really bug me and I really don’t get why they always come up when talking about models.
    I get to hear that my body resembles that one of a 12-year-old girl/boy ALL THE TIME. Guess what. I’m 19 years old, therefore my body looks like that of a 19-year-old.
    Not all skinny girls/women and boys/men are skinny because they live on cigarettes and diet pills. It’s like saying all fat people don’t exercise and eat fastfood all day.

  2. bpbetsy says:

    Hope this isn’t too far off topic…

    I really love style and fashion and expressing myself through clothing. (High femme here). I’m the perfect consumer to target fashion advertisements and magazine spreads to. But the industry is doing it wrong, because I am not remotely interested in purchasing any garments that appear on a child or an adult with the measurements of a child, as they wouldn’t fit or flatter me. My eyes glaze over in response to editorials with very thin models of any age – I simply can’t envision or imagine the clothing on my frame, so I don’t feel enticed or excited to buy it. (And I’m someone with size privilege). They think they are selling a fantasy, but I’m much more likely to fantasize about a beautiful dress if I can see it on an adult woman who doesn’t have supermodel proportions, if I can genuinely see “myself” in it.

  3. Jacky says:

    OMFG the photo of the headdress… because that’s what we need, more sexualization of First Nations (or even badly stereotypical, symbolicly First Nations) children… as if the high rape and murder rate of our women and children (70% of which crimes are committed by non-First Nations people), and the whole residential schools/60s scoop/millennial scoop violence isn’t bad enough
    how do people even get to a head space where they think it is ever o.k. to engage in this kind of creepiness, racism, and objectification, much less use a child to promote it?!
    barf.
    I might have some coherent thoughts about the rest of it when I feel less rage-y

  4. Ashley says:

    I agree with Raya. It really concerns me that anyone compares a woman or model that a lack of curves as 12 year old boys. Lots of women are naturally this way and I don’t see it as anything other than beautiful.

  5. bpbetsy says:

    Ashley – I agree it is beautiful. Most of my female partners have had this body type. It just shouldn’t be presented as the only attractive, acceptable shape for an adult woman – especially because it does differ quite dramatically from the “average” female figure, and because most women cannot achieve it without taking unhealthy measures.

    Note that I’m not just talking about being slim – which lots of healthy women are – but also being taller than 5’9, with broad shoulders, flat chests, and narrow hips. This particular body type is extremely rare and yet has become the uniform standard for high fashion, and the figure that all women are supposed to strive for.

  6. Matthew Jameson says:

    The link re: Lindsey Wixson goes straight to a photo of her on a catwalk with a completely sheer top, no bra and visible nipples. Can we please not link to what are essentially nude photos of a child? Please?

  7. Caperton says:

    raya, Ashley, bpbetsey – I completely agree. Another favorite of mine is the “womanly figure”–because, apparently, you’re not a woman if you don’t have a specific delta between waist measurement and hip measurement.

    I only made the comparison here because older (“older,” heh) models are facing competition from, in some cases, actual twelve-year-olds, and those are the specific bodies they’re being expected to emulate. And that’s where the problems come in: The body of a slender 18-year-old isn’t the body of a 13-year-old, and it can’t be made into the body of a 13-year-old. It’s when women are expected to do it anyway that they end up having heart attacks backstage at fashion shows.

  8. Caperton says:

    Matthew Jameson: The link re: Lindsey Wixson goes straight to a photo of her on a catwalk with a completely sheer top, no bra and visible nipples. Can we please not link to what are essentially nude photos of a child? Please?

    You make a good point. Links have been shifted around, and a note has been made. That said: Even acknowledging that these girls are young, oversexualized, and frequently taken advantage of, I’d rather not get into the habit of calling a 15-year-old a “child.”

  9. Brigid says:

    Our girls need to know that while they do have to play a respectful part in the social contract, they also have the right to stand up for themselves when they feel the need, even if it’s against authority figures. Even if it’s against their friends. Even if it’s against us.

    Such a good point. For all my parents gave me some backwards ideas (like: femininity is weak, sexuality is evil), a huge reason that I am the feminist I am today is that they also taught me to disobey. Or, as they would put it, “question authority.” They gave me the tools to rebel against and stand up to even them, and for that I’m ever grateful.

  10. Matthew Jameson says:

    Caperton: You make a good point. Links have been shifted around, and a note has been made. That said: Even acknowledging that these girls are young, oversexualized, and frequently taken advantage of, I’d rather not get into the habit of calling a 15-year-old a “child.”

    So you think she’s a “girl,” but you object to me calling her a “child”? See dictionary.com definition: a person between birth and full growth; a boy or girl.

    Or don’t. Whatever. I’m not real interested in getting derailed talking about the difference between a “minor” and a “child.” Thanks for fixing the links.

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/child

  11. Tei Tetua says:

    I would very much like to see a prosecution of everyone involved in that exhibition of Lindsey Wixson, for child pornography. The legal definition in kiddie-porn cases isn’t what’s shown or not shown, but the sexualization of a minor, and that’s exactly what they’ve done. The defendants would have to include Wixson herself, because as a professional she should be aware of what she’s doing. But as you so rightly said, if she weren’t willing, there are plenty of other girls who would be. And in a way that’s worst of all–the fact that this kind of stuff isn’t seen as a horror, but as totally wonderful.

    The makeup ought to be illegal too, but I’m not aware of any laws about it.

  12. SamanthaPink says:

    I really agreed with all you said. The photoshoots that these 10 and 15 year olds are having..it’s quite disturbing. But I also found it hypocritical that Lindsey Wixson asked for a nude bra for one photoshoot but then walked in a fashion show bra-less in a see-through shirt. I guess you make a point by saying that if she didn’t do it, so many other girls would. But she ended up not even making a point. She still did it, and there are still pictures showing her breasts. That’s counter-effec

  13. Li says:

    Tei Tetua: I would very much like to see a prosecution of everyone involved in that exhibition of Lindsey Wixson, for child pornography. The legal definition in kiddie-porn cases isn’t what’s shown or not shown, but the sexualization of a minor, and that’s exactly what they’ve done. The defendants would have to include Wixson herself, because as a professional she should be aware of what she’s doing. But as you so rightly said, if she weren’t willing, there are plenty of other girls who would be. And in a way that’s worst of all–the fact that this kind of stuff isn’t seen as a horror, but as totally wonderful.

    The makeup ought to be illegal too, but I’m not aware of any laws about it.

    Seriously? You want to see a prosecution for child pornography that includes the minor being portrayed? Do I even have to outline how many ways in which this is a terrible, terrible idea?

  14. Pingback: Teaching the Value of Disobedience « O, Pioneers!

  15. matlun says:

    Li: Seriously? You want to see a prosecution for child pornography that includes the minor being portrayed? Do I even have to outline how many ways in which this is a terrible, terrible idea?

    Yes, it is beyond ridiculous. Still this happened before in for example numerous sexting prosecutions, so clearly it is not obvious to everyone…

  16. licious says:

    SamanthaPink:
    I really agreed with all you said.The photoshoots that these 10 and 15 year olds are having..it’s quite disturbing.But I also found it hypocritical that Lindsey Wixson asked for a nude bra for one photoshoot but then walked in a fashion show bra-less in a see-through shirt.I guess you make a point by saying that if she didn’t do it, so many other girls would. But she ended up not even making a point.She still did it, and there are still pictures showing her breasts.That’s counter-effec

    I think the issue here is that Lindsey Wixson, to my mind, is neither really a child or an adult. As both a teenager and an individual, Wixson has agency and is learning to negotiate that agency in the world around her. Fully adult people don’t always make great decisions, and that is certainly true for teenagers, and it must be remembered that Wixson ISN’T an adult. As a teenager, she is entitled, and arguably should be encouraged to, make mistakes. The unfortunate part of this situation is that Wixson is in a vulnerable position as both a woman and a model, and I worry about conversations that risk making it seem like she is at fault for making the decision that she did.
    Furthermore, she doesn’t have the relative privilege of making this ‘mistake’ in private. Instead, the public is subject to watching her negotiate her agency in these public spaces, which is a lot of pressure for anyone, never mind a minor.

  17. Pingback: Photographer Dani Brubaker Isn’t Pleased With The Response To Her Images Of Thylane Lena-Rose Blondeau | TheGloss

  18. That tradition reaches far into the past. In the Silent Era of films, the kleig lights used to illuminate a set were extremely bright and revealing. Any minor blemish showed up on film, so extremely young actresses were often used for reasons you’ve cited.

    A leading role might be played by someone as young as 15 or 16, but once a woman reached the age of 24 or 25, she more or less was forced into retirement. I wonder how much this precedent influenced that which followed it.

  19. Paraxeni says:

    I also found it hypocritical that Lindsey Wixson asked for a nude bra for one photoshoot but then walked in a fashion show bra-less in a see-through shirt

    In the language of my people – “Gan te Jarra, man”.

    Hypocritical? Show me a 15yr old employee (especially in such a coercive industry) with total agency, and I’ll show you a bridge I’ve got for sale.

  20. Iris says:

    Comrade Kevin:
    That tradition reaches far into the past.In the Silent Era of films, the kleig lights used to illuminate a set were extremely bright and revealing.Any minor blemish showed up on film, so extremely young actresses were often used for reasons you’ve cited.

    A leading role might be played by someone as young as 15 or 16, but once a woman reached the age of 24 or 25, she more or less was forced into retirement.I wonder how much this precedent influenced that which followed it.

    I am curious as to the source of your information.

    How many of these women were forced out of the movie industry in their mid 20s?

    Are you saying blemish concealing makeup was not available 100 years ago? Cuz I know those women wore makeup. You can see it in the films.

    Who decided a blemish was the end of one’s career? Do blemishes suddenly appear in one’s mid 20s?

    I’m not convinced this is the precedent to thrusting a 10 year old into sexually laden poses. Are you saying only 10 year olds are blemish free enough to be photographed as a sexual object nowadays?

  21. McSnarkster says:

    Honestly, the top she’s wearing in the LaCoste photo isn’t sheer everywhere, especially the parts that are more thickly draped. Plus she has a jacket over it. My guess is backstage she (and maybe others) might not have realized how sheer it was–either the fabric was falling in a way that hid stuff, the jacket covered things until she started walking, or it’s the usual culprit: a camera’s flash making clothing more sheer. I don’t think it’s really fair to call her a hypocrite, even if I’m wrong and she did give into pressure. I remember how hard it was to resist peer pressure at that age, and while a group of other teens may be daunting, I’m sure the pressures of fashion week must be much, much higher.

    (And child pornography? Seriously?)

  22. CassandraSays says:

    I guess the real question here is why and how we as a society decided that pores are disgusting (but only on women).

    I do some photography. In high-res images you can always see minor skin imperfections, in the sense that no one’s skin actually looks the way Photoshopped skin does. (Not even the skin of children, really, it’s just closer.) Now, I’m a pretty shallow person in some ways, and often I’m photographing men who I find physically attractive and think of in a sexual way. But the revelation that in extreme close-up their skin is not at all smooth or poreless does not make them seem less attractive to me, because that’s how I expect skin to look. So why do so many people apparently think that pores, skin tone that’s not uniform, etc, are things that ought to only exist on men? (And no, it’s not a makeup issue either, because I’ve photographed men who wear makeup and you can still see their pores, in fact in some ways makeup emphasises pores and lines.) How did we as a culture come to decide that what’s most attractive on a female person is for her to have skin that appears to be made of smooth plastic?

    Maybe this is an artsy person’s perspective or something, but I actually find the natural texture of skin very sexy. As in, the sexiest photos I can think of are ones where you can see all the minor variations that occur in skin tone, the way pores open when a person is hot, sweat beading on skin, etc. Am I unusual in this, or do other people somehow maintain a separaration where the skin on the body is sexy in its natural state but the skin on the face is supposed to look plastic?

  23. Erin Joyce says:

    This reminds me in many ways of the child beauty pageant industry. The parents and adults involved in high glitz pageants claim that they don’t sexualize the children and that these pageants are completely innocent while they have the children do a shimmy in bedazzled swimsuits. I’ve even seen a little girl do a sexy dance routine in a stripper-like, shinny “policewoman” outfit (miniskirt, boots, tank). Our society sexualizes grown women like there’s no tomorrow; do we need to turn the children into meat, too?

  24. I am getting a lot of new thoughts to think about, I have thoughts from yesterday in discussion with a friend here-> http://www.journalfen.net/users/fangirl/1856.html?mode=reply and I will mull over, digest, read the comments here, mull over, digest, and repeat the process until I go from A to B, a movement that appears to be in circles but is yet a progressive, forward-thinking forward movement. Thank you for your concise thoughts. The subject evoked a lot of emotion from me, and now it’s time to mull.

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  26. Nifty says:

    I have a lot to thank websites like this for, disobedience wise; I am a pre-teen girl, and feminism has really made me think more about whether the adult world is so great after all. Many of my friends never really learned that, and it’s sad.

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