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

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.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain