Tall, sexy, intimidating, sassy. They’re all words you would quite happily describe a model as. Nothing wrong in that. But how about attributing them to a 13-year old girl- a little more uncomfortable doing that? And therein lies the problem in hiring and using girls barely old enough to buy their own clothes, let alone old enough to fully understand the harsh realities of the industry in using their bodies to parade, promote and present designer clothes.
Currently in this country there isn’t a minimum legal age for modelling in the adult fashion industry (both editorial and catwalk). But, generally agencies suggest models under 16 have a guardian with them for consultations, and work according to precautionary measures including chaperones, restrictions on hours, maturity of photographs etc. However, these regulations aren’t with all models followed to the T, as numerous high profile media frenzies have reported the extreme cases. A model as young as ten years old graced the front cover of Vogue, clad in tight-fitting clothing and stilettos no less. This is an extreme, which is absurd and raises more than an ethical dilemma but it raises the issue of young to mid teen models used routinely in the industry. I would fully support legislation to help protect young girls, who are children on ethical, moral and social grounds. But simply age-banning is not the solution.
The issue of liberty and individual rights for older teens does become an issue amongst others. It’s not unusual for a 15 year old to have a part-time job of some description, I worked Saturdays in a kitchen to earn a bit of money, so why should the same age teen be denied even entertaining this idea as a viable job. Culturally, for example in some developing countries such as Ukraine (without relying on stereotypes) some models do work in order to send money home to their families who are dependent on their daughters working to support their family. By attempting to ban all models of a certain age would damage this source or income, or would force them to postulate as adult models without the protection as a minor. Yes, there do need to be sanctions and support put in place for individuals to be able to make their own decisions, if they are under 16 then this needs consent by a guardian, which should be supported, not exploited, by the industry and the press; agencies, casters and designers. There is no guarantee a girl of 17 is more mentally developed and “ready” for the industry anymore so than a girl who is 16 who does have, as NY fashion week implemented last year, a whole range of support to help her and stop the possibility for exploitation; and the potential abuse. The sexualisation of children is both sickening and perverse, no one would disagree with this, but simply banning young models doesn’t provide a solution, only creates a problem. It is two-fold, underage models will continue to work, and these protective measures would not be there to protect them. That is, in simply banning under 18s and ignoring the need for support systems younger models will continue to work but under the guise of an 18 year old, potentiality exposing them to darker sides of the industry which they need, most specifically as a child, protecting from.
Designers do fairly routinely work with minors who are internationals, notably Marc Jacob’s 14-year-old models Thairine Garcia and Ondira Hardin that caused a stir after NY fashion council advised against under 16 models to be used on the catwalk. So, as it is clear to see there needs to be a collective set of legislation that helps protect models internationally as opposed to small scale, localised systems. Furthermore initial signing up of minors is an issue which massively has the potential to make a major difference to their well-being, alongside when and how they are dealt with in the industry. Fully understanding the practicalities and the un-glamorous side of 4am casting calls, numerous rejections, long haul flights, sleep deprivation in busy seasons needs to be more transparent when they are initially approached. This is the case for both models and their guardians.
An age limit should be enforced internationally and regulated, but this should not be held up as the be-all and end-all solution. Yes, it is utterly ridiculous to have a 10 year old on or in vogue in such a compromised position, and in fact the child is so highly sexualised its not all that far from verging on issues of child pornography. This needs to be addressed and prohibited. But a 16 year old being forced to lie, either for herself or for her agency, to get into a casting in which the conditions or the maturity levels are not suitable for a girl still developing a sense of identity but fully aware of the consequences? This second case it’s tricky. It is clear to see however that age bans create almost as many problems as they solve. There is no magic answer that would be right and comprehensively cover all young pre-20s models. Furthermore it is not only the model, but the guardians and the agencies themselves that need fully consider and understand the implications that occur in working in this industry, self-esteem issues playing a major role. Gerren Tylor, the infamous 12 year old model in 2003 was fully supported by her parents with her agency heralding her as the next ‘Naomi Campbell’. After strutting for catwalks from McQueen to Marc Jacobs when she started to “fill out” (quote the designers, this for the most is shocking to hear size 4 and filled out together) to a size 4 by the age of 16, she was considered not the ideal shape. She enjoyed her time as a model but ‘had a very hard time coping’ when faced with these damaging reactions of the industry to the natural process of her body maturing into a pubescent state. Agencies in hiring pre-pubescent girls need to address this- the young models will inevitably, as is natural, l physically develop from the stick-thin boyish figure into something else. In signing up girls too young of course they will change, it is problematic, nay dangerous for models, younger and older, and damaging to be told as Jerry was she needed to be thin and was told ultimately in France she was too big too model, all of this still at a UK size 8.
It’s this obsession with extreme youth and the minuscule body aesthetic it purports as some kind of ‘ideal’ that’s the problem that permeates the industry. Age regulations could help but only as one of a package of support systems, regulations and international legislation to help protect young models who are vulnerable in an industry that is notoriously cut throat. These young models deserve rights as individuals to care, respect and support but also need protecting as children, as young adults that crucially are still developing physically and mentally and learning everyday who they are.