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?
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.