Model Lily Cole, seen here in 2012, aged 24, was scouted at the age of 14. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Children’s bodies in adult clothes: fashion’s love affair with youth and size zero

Why - even though fashion is aimed at adult women - does it use teenage models? Is it because their bodies are more child-like - or because they are more compliant? 

High fashion consistently chooses a very specific type of person to stride the catwalks and appear in the pages of style publications. Where do these women come from, with their height and thinness and angular features? Do they appear, fully-formed, with the correct measurements at age 18, as if emerging from an industry-standard chrysalis? They don’t. The most famous and highest-earning models are often scouted when they are children, adolescents under the age of 16. They are pressured to keep the same measurements as they grow older, and when this doesn’t happen, they are kicked to the curb.

Gemma Ward was discovered in Perth, aged 14, at an Australian modelling competition called Search for a Supermodel. In an interview with Teen Vogue, she described her scouting as aggressive and unexpected. “When the scout came up to me, I said, ‘No, thank you’. They forged my mum's signature [for mandatory parental consent], and pushed me in front of the cameras.” She appeared on the cover of American Vogue at 16. Her fragile body, large, wide-set eyes and blonde hair seemed to be a winning formula, and Ward’s career took off spectacularly. At 17 she appeared on 20 New York runways for designers including Calvin Klein, Vera Wang and Oscar de la Renta. She was hired for top campaigns including Burberry and Valentino, and replaced Kate Moss as the face of CK’s Obsession Night.

Then her body changed, and all bitchy hell broke loose. In 2007, Ward walked a Chanel show in a denim bikini and fashion media and industry insiders couldn’t handle it. An anonymous editor called her “big, almost bloated” and style headlines sneered “Chanel Spring ’08 Embraces the Big Girl”. Articles dubbed her outfit the “not so itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny Chanel bikini”. She was 19 at the time. She no longer looked like a 14 or 16 year old and fashion thought this was unacceptable.

The highest-earning models in the world were discovered at similarly young ages: Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Lily Cole were scouted at 14, 15 and 14 respectively. The 16-year-old Moss was famously shot by Corinne Day for British magazine The Face, ushering in the popularity of ‘heroin chic’. Campbell got her first British ELLE cover age 15 and Cole her first British Vogue cover age 16. They couldn’t vote or drink or buy fireworks, kitchen knives or cigarettes, and yet they graced the covers of adult fashion magazines, where were aimed at an adult demographic and showcased adult clothes.

The fact that fashion favours young girls is intensely problematic. Younger models may not realise that they have the option of saying “no” when asked, for example, to pose topless, or in a sexually suggestive manner with a male model. In 2012, Kate Moss said that she hated posing nude when she was a teenager. "I see a 16-year-old now, and to ask her to take her clothes off would feel really weird. But they were like, If you don’t do it, then we’re not going to book you again. So I’d lock myself in the toilet and cry and then come out and do it," she told Vanity Fair.

The Model Alliance is a non-profit labour organisation that represents American models. Deputy director Alexandra Simmerson spoke to me about fashion’s preference for younger girls. She said: “Most fashion models begin their careers in their early teens, and the choices they make as children may have long-lasting repercussions. These children are often working in adult environments with adult pressures that they may not have the maturity to handle on their own.”

It may be too much of a supposition to state that fashion favours 14 and 15-year-olds, like Lily Cole, Lara Stone and Natalia Vodianova at the beginning of their careers, because they are more pliable and easily influenced. However, it’s important to recognise that manipulation and exploitation are much more likely to occur when children are operating unprotected in an industry populated by adult photographers, designers and casting agents.

I spoke to ex-model and freelance graphic designer Meredith Hattan, who said that “all models have very few protections in the fashion industry”. This is particularly problematic when it comes to younger models, who may not be as knowledgeable about their legal rights or as confident about speaking up when something is unacceptable. “Models are technically independent contractors, but are signed to exclusive contracts with agencies, which means they are unable to report sexual harassment by employers, get paid in an orderly fashion, and have a regulated workplace,” she explained. Meredith added that “public opinion sometimes holds the mentality of ‘well, no one was holding a gun to her head’, but as a model, you truly feel powerless sometimes. It takes a long time to learn you have a voice of your own – and use it”.

If you are a child-model of under 16 or even under 18, you will be praised for having particular body measurements. You may feel that these measurements are preferable to any other, as they bring modelling work and the promise of recognition. You may then resist the natural changes that occur in your body, and feel pressured to maintain your adolescent body shape as you grow older. It’s not difficult to imagine that this pressure acts as an incubator for the development of eating disorders. In our interview, Meredith Hattam described in-demand models as being “lambasted for becoming ‘fat’ when they grow up – which, in the modelling world, is the equivalent of a dress size”.

The expectations placed on models to maintain their measurements in order to get work are well-documented. Kirstie Clements, former editor of Vogue Australia, describes lunch with an agent who told her that “the top casting directors are demanding that they be thinner and thinner. I've got four girls in hospital. And a couple of the others have resorted to eating tissues. Apparently they swell up and fill your stomach”. The fashion industry has come under more serious scrutiny since 2006, when Luisel Ramos collapsed on the catwalk and died of heart failure caused by anorexia nervosa.

Conde Nast International, owner of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Glamour and GQ, responded in May 2012 by creating a six-point pact that included the agreement that Vogue would not work with any model under 16, in any of its editions. This suggests Conde Nast and Vogue itself understands that there is a relationship between the proliferation of size zero models, anorexia nervosa, and the use of girls under 16. 

Vogue has violated this agreement three times to date, using Ondria Hardin in the August 2012 issue of Vogue China, Sarah Kees in the September 2012 issue of Vogue Italia and Julia Borawksa in the November 2013 issue of Vogue Mexico. All these girls were 15 years old. Thairine Garcia, age 14, was shot for the September 2012 issue of Vogue Japan, although her editorial never made it to print. With regard to the latest violation, Kelly Talamas, the editor in chief of Vogue Mexico, told Fashionista that the magazine “did not cast any models for this shoot, and was not involved in any manner with the production.” The story and photographs were bought from photographer Kevin Sinclair, who admitted to being aware of Conde Nast’s Health Initiative but pleaded ignorance of Julia Borawska’s age. It’s strange that Sinclair didn’t think to make a cursory Google search, for this would have brought him to Borawska’s Fashion Model Directory Profile, her Polish model agency website or her Instagram page. Her age is clearly displayed in all of these sources.

Autumn and Winter 2012 saw the proliferation of under 16s on the catwalks for New York Fashion Week. Photographer David Urbanke tweeted: “I’ve stopped counting the number of underage girls I’ve photographed that have walked shows this season.” Ondria Hardin and Thairine Garcia, both 14, walked the Marc Jacobs Fall 2012 runway. When questioned about his use of underage models, Jacobs responded: “I do the show the way I think it should be and not the way somebody tells me it should be.” This remark perfectly sums up fashion’s problem. The creative “vision” of designers and photographers has been permitted to override everything else, including the health, well-being and physical safety of models. Jacobs is the “little emperor” of his fashion kingdom and he doesn’t care who he uses as long as his show goes the way he thinks it should. The directors of The Model Alliance believe that this kind of behaviour has gone on too long.

The Model Alliance has tackled the problem of unprotected young models by successfully campaigning for models under the age of 18 to be classed as “child performers” under New York’s labour laws. This came into effect in November 2013 and NY employers in the fashion industry must now make sure that child models have valid work permits, follow restricted working hours, allow breaks for every four hours of work and show evidence that they have placed 15 per cent of the child’s earnings in a trust account. New York law stipulates that models must meet certain health standards before they can gain the required child model permit.

This victory for The Model Alliance should be used as an international standard. It’s disappointing that other fashion capitals, including London, Paris and Milan, are falling behind when it comes to the rights of models under 18. Alexandra Simmerson adds that “all child labourers, workers under the age of 18 or the age of majority depending on the jurisdiction, should be adequately protected by child labour laws no matter the country they perform services in or the industry in which they work”.

Models should be able to work in an environment where they are safe and protected, and this is particularly important for those under the age of 18. It is wrong to use the bodies of under 16s to model adult clothes. I will say this without hesitancy and without exception. Fashion publications like Vogue, Harper’s Bazar and ELLE are aimed at and consumed by adult women, and it is adults who should model the clothes shown on their pages. It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine that being exposed to pictures of adolescent bodies will make adult women feel inadequate. Add some airbrushing, hours in hair and make-up and thousands of pounds worth of couture clothes, and you’ve got a great recipe for body dissatisfaction and increased numbers of those suffering from debilitating eating disorders.

The use of children and child-like body shapes on catwalks and in the pages of adult fashion magazines feeds into an industry culture that glorifies youth and thinness to the point of sickness. This obsession on the part of fashion puts the health of models and those who consume fashion media at risk. The work that organisations like The Model Alliance do is key to reversing this trend and protecting the women who work in the fashion industry. As Alexandra Simmerson says at the end of our interview: “If children are not cast as ‘adults’, and if young models must be deemed physically fit in order to work, there will hopefully be less pressure on the models to maintain the undeveloped body type of an early teenager, and the images we see on the runway will be of women, and not children.”

Harriet Williamson is a freelance journalist and full-time copywriter. She blogs about feminism, fashion and mental health, and tweets @harriepw.

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
Show Hide image

Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496