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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? 

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

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.”

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