Not Cool: Why We Say NO To Kids on the Catwalk

By Jody McCutcheon

Fashion Week is once again upon us, and as always, there’s been some critique about choices of models on the runway, specifically a  lack of inclusion of racial minorities and heavier models. But now we can add another group that is fast becoming scarcer  on the catwalks: adult women.

This problem is of such great concern that the  British Fashion Council (BFC) has recently drawn up stipulations advising  designers to only use models over the age of 16, while in New York models who are under 18 must be treated under the same rules as child performers. The  Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), the professional organization of top American designers, has also pushed get New York designers to not use models under the age of 16.

However, many designers, including Miu Miu, Chanel and Marc Jacobs, who sits on the CFDA’s Board of Directors, and to whom the organization gave its 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award, insist on flaunting adolescent girls on their catwalks and in their ad campaigns.

Despite much criticism for using 14 year olds on the runway and Elle Fanning (who was 13 at the time) in an ad campaign (seen below), Jacobs  defended his actions  on the spurious grounds that using only models over 16 “impinged on his creative freedom”.

Kids on the Catwalk

Image: Marc Jacobs campaign

Moving on to Paris, the scene is even worse: Raf Simons at  Dior put a 14 year old model in a see-through gown, and a Tom Ford edited version of Paris Vogue featured a highly sexualised little girl who was only aged 10 wearing stiletto heels, heavy makeup and lying provocatively on a sofa.  That model, Thylane Blondeau, has been modeling since age four, and now that she’s 14, Look Magazine UK says in a new article ‘she’s all grown up’ and recently featured her in a shoot.

She’s not alone: one ‘top’ model’ today is nine year old  Kristina Pimenova, who has worked for big-name designers like Roberto Cavalli, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, with many already calling her the world’s “most beautiful girl.” Recently, Jalouse magazine (again in France) put Thylane on their cover, dubbing her ‘the new Kate Moss’ even though she was only 13. Designer Nancy Vu has created a couture line just for children – modelled by children, some as young as 4.

Kids on the Catwalk

Image: Vogue France

Most people have no problem criticising mothers who enter their heavily made up little girls into beauty pageants, so it should be obvious how wrong this is, but it seems when we’re talking fashion capital runways instead of small town stages, many turn a blind eye.

Recently in  Jezebel magazine,  America’s Next Top Model judge Nigel Barker felt the need to speak up. He says even though under-16-year-olds are not meant to be walking in New York fashion week at all, of the models he had seen that fashion week, “they seem like they’re all 16. It would be nice to see older people on the runways. ” And by “older”, he means, say, 20: “We should see fuller-figured girls, and older! Why don’t we just see women? I mean, women are those who buy the clothes. If you can’t put them on a woman, what are you trying to say?

Indeed. At Eluxe, we strongly believe that modelling should be treated like any other job, subject to the same age restrictions and labour laws, at the very least. Here are 9 reasons we strongly believe it’s wrong to put kids on the catwalk.

Kids on the Catwalk

Image: Dior runway

1. There is No Need

While acting roles may require actors of a certain age (and displays of kids’ clothing require child models), there’s simply no reason teenaged girls should be selling clothing aimed at adult women. The way a 14 year old (like the one on the Dior runway, above) looks in a dress is not the same way a 35 year old (the most likely consumer) will look, and women are smart enough to know it. So what’s the point?

Kids on the Catwalk

2. It Is Child Labour

Why do we condemn kids working in factories, but not in fashion? Far from being ‘glamorous,’ modeling is a full time job involving major travel and long hours. We’re fooling ourselves if we think parading children around on the catwalk serves the kids’ best interests in any way; rather, it serves the adults–handlers, parents, audience. Really, how can a child live a healthy, well-balanced life, much less learn scholastics, with a fifteen-to-sixteen hour workday with minimal or no parental supervision or guidance?

3. It Sexualises Children

Why do we think it’s terrible for a 14 year old to don  a ‘porn star’ tee shirt, but ok for a 10 year old to dress and pose like a full grown, hot woman in a sequinned dress and heels?  The use of teen (and younger) models absolutely promotes the sexualization of young girls. The common use of child models can easily lead to coercion into  compromising situations, such as posing nude or performing sexual acts  under threat of losing desired jobs, as many models complained was the case when working with top fashion photographer Thierry Richardson. Furthermore, underage modeling puts young girls in the public eye, subjecting them to the attention of some very unsavoury characters, such as pedophile murderer Martin Robertson, who preyed on such young models.

4. It’s Not a Great Career Move

By no means is modeling a foot in the door to a future career in fashion or show business. Most models enter the industry in their mid teens and last no more than a decade. After about age twenty-five (if not earlier), they’re tossed on the rubbish heap. For every successful model who’s gone on to future success–even those like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, both of whom faced adversity in the form of health and legal problems–there are countless more whose names we don’t know who have poor career prospects indeed. But what’s even more important than all of this is what could well be fashion’s dirtiest secret: many models are barely paid, if at all, for their work. Modelling agency fees are often such that the deductions they take for their cut, plus travel and housing expenses amount to very little for the model at all. And some designers (such as Jacobs, apparently) prefer to pay ‘in trade’ –that is, clothing. So not only are we talking child labour; it’s also basically slave labour.

5. It Can Lead to Very Bad Things

Because it is so badly paid, naive, insecure and lacking parental supervision or guidance, many teen models end up desperate and exploited, sometimes even turning tricks or getting into the “escort” business to pay the bills between gigs. What’s more, the proliferation of teen models makes other teens aspire to be one too– and the classifieds are rife with ads posted by pimps posing as agents for “modelling” work that ends up being simply nude modeling or ‘acting’ work for the soft porn industry.

The Boston Globe’s extensive investigation of sexual abuse in the modelling world found that adolescent models routinely encounter exploitative situations with photographers, stylists and agents, and according to the Business of Fashion: “Underage models are more vulnerable to the abuses of the industry, advocates say, such as eating disorders and the stresses of a jet-setting job. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the industry is also grappling with the reality that minors are especially susceptible to exploitation, and are often intimidated by possible repercussions if they come forward.”

6. It’s a Gateway to  Bad Health

The modeling business has always been riddled with drug  addiction and eating disorders. Cocaine (that magical weight-loss drug!), caffeine and alcohol are drugs of choice for young, insecure women walking the catwalk, while anorexia and bulimia are also prevalent in the profession – some models have been known to eat cotton wool or clumps of tissue to make themselves feel full. Here is a list of issues faced by models, courtesy of the Huffington Post, but we would like to add to that: makeup. While it’s ok for developing kids to play dress up every now and then, when you’re slapping on tons of product infused with hormone disrupting ingredients (as many non-organic cosmetics are), this cannot be good for a child’s system.

And don’t think the industry really cares one whit if the girls are unhealthy:  a Swedish modeling agency was censured for actually recruiting  potential teenage models outside eating disorder clinics. So prevalent are drug and eating disorder problems amongst models, specific charities and organisations such as the UK-based Beat  and USA based Model Cleanse have been set up to help.  The story of Kate Moss, who began her career at age fourteen, should serve as a cautionary tale–sure, many would agree she’s enjoyed great success, but she’s also been battling long-standing drug and alcohol addiction problems all her life.

7. It Perpetuates A Cult of Youth

Fashion campaigns that use teens pressure adult women to attain a body type that typically disappears once puberty kicks in. But it’s not only these girls’ bodies that are clearly not adult: even their facial structure is child-like, with tiny noses and chins and perfect skin, unaffected as yet by hormonal changes. This is not only unattainable for almost all adult women, but once these girls do hit puberty, their careers are often over.

And make no mistake: most 14 year olds aren’t even as thin as the girls on the runway.  Take the new fad size of 00, for example. This is equivalent to the average size of a ten-year-old. Teen (or older) girls aspiring to this size are in great danger of developing eating disorders. Once their bodies begin to change, as is normal for young girls growing into womanhood, they’re conditioned by the fashion industry to believe they are too big or fat.

8. It Makes Models Grow Up Too Fast

While those in the fashion industry may infantilize models by calling them “girls” rather than “women,” the industry forces child models to grow up quickly. Often on their own, these young models are vulnerable to drugs, exploitation, loneliness and suffer from a lack of or delayed formal education. Essentially, they are denied part of their childhood. Even those who made it to the top think the industry should be closed to younger teens: former teen model Dunja Knezevic, now an anti-teen model activist, calls the industry “pedophilic,” and supermodel Karlie Kloss (whose career was launched when she was 15) says she wishes she was ‘a little older’ when she started.

9. It Commodifies Childhood

Putting kids on the catwalk perpetuates both the commodification and consumerization of children. When kids see kids modelling $10,000 dresses by designers, they start to think it’s normal for youngsters to wear such clothing and keep on top of  runway trends. Sure, it’s typical  for kids to want to fit in through fashion, but while this once meant having the right kind of jeans or school rucksack, it increasingly means kids are pressuring their parents to purchase designer clothing, handbags and even haute couture gowns for them – all of which will no doubt be worn a few times before being outgrown and thrown away.

Kids on the Catwalk

No matter the lip service paid to the honourable intention of protecting these underage girls, the inexorable search for fresh faces continues to target younger “talent” each year. We believe that for those targeted, it’s all too much pressure too soon in life, with no one to teach them adequate coping skills. After all, even if  young models reach the height of their profession in their early teens, is there anywhere to go but down?

Last 2 images: Nancy Vu, via Facebook


Main image: Jalouse Magazine, Paris

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