Just when we were getting used to seeing pubescent bodies of 13-year-old fashion models draped in $10,000 outfits, French Vogue has taken the creepy trend one step further with some controversial photos of a pre-pubescent 10-year-old model striking some very adult poses.
The image of young Thylane Loubry Blondeau, stretched out on a tiger skin with leopard-print high heels, red nail polish, big jewelry and upswept hair, has lit up the Web and reignited the long-running debate over whether we are sexualizing young girls.
Let’s agree here with the many outraged bloggers who note that there is something deeply creepy about the images. The girl has a preternaturally mature stare and a Brigitte Bardot pout that is both stunning and unsettling. And of course there’s something disturbing about the whole concept of using a fourth-grader to hawk couture for adult women.
But in truth, I’m a little surprised that the Vogue pictures caused such a stir given that there’s no comparable outrage over the fact that Target sells pink silk padded bras for tweens or that, come this Halloween, we’ll once again be faced with fetish wear for 6-year-olds including some truly icky French maid costumes.
And yet we’re shocked each time there’s a new sexy kid incident. Inevitably, in response, the TV networks drag out the clips of the heavily made-up kiddie pageant contestants on TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras, along with that viral video of a dance competition featuring young girls wearing garters and gyrating to a Beyoncé song.
Outrage aside, the question no one seems to be able to answer is whether the media’s sexualization of young girls, which I think is undeniably increasing, is changing girls’ behavior. So far, it doesn’t seem to be driving girls to have sex earlier. Most teens aren’t sexually active until 11th or 12th grade or later, and a surprising number (more than half) even wait until after high school to have sex. However, when women do have sex for the first time, they feel less satisfied with their bodies afterward, according to studies of college students, a phenomenon that doesn’t apply to men. That may or may not be a byproduct of sexy women becoming the wallpaper of our society, but it’s something to watch.
MORE: Teens Are Having Less Sex
There’s also a temptation to connect the ubiquity of tarted-up tween and teen models to the seeming inability of so many ordinary middle-school girls to stand in front of a camera without twisting themselves into a pornified Victoria’s Secret pose, then post the image on Facebook. I’d argue that this is just one sign that girls can’t go 10 minutes without thinking about their looks. In fact, one of the more insidious effects of the appearance of 10-year-old models in gold lamé cocktail dresses — like the one little Thylane wore in the Vogue shoot — is that it will only push the tyranny of the pressure to look “hot” to ever younger ages.
Indeed, the pressure is starting earlier and lasting longer — right past the Demi Moore generation to the age at which women start collecting their Social Security checks. Fifty-year-olds are now regularly shopping with their daughters at stores like Forever 21. And perhaps that hits at the crux of the issue: are we supposed to look forever 21 whether we’re 10 or 30 or 50? In the same Vogue issue with the kid models were middle-aged models (some looking surgically enhanced) posing the same way as the teens and tweens.
Both sets of images leave you feeling uncomfortable. We’re perpetuating a cradle-to-grave expectation of hotness.
Even the recent heartening news that members of a fitness club voted 66-year-old actress Helen Mirren “Body of the Year” over younger women like Jennifer Lopez left a bad aftertaste. Mirren is a lovely woman, but why are we putting this tremendously accomplished actress in competition with 20-year-old spokesmodels?
And are the rest of us supposed to compete with either one? Mirren has famously said that she’s not into cosmetic procedures, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t being pressured into getting them in order to achieve the same youthful appearance. A few years ago, actress Virginia Madsen went on tour to promote Botox with her 70-something mother. Yes, 70 is not too old to worry about wrinkles. Nor is 22 too young to use Botox; the wrinkle-reducing injection is rising in popularity among younger women.
The whole scene makes you wonder, Do we want to put girls on that treadmill of aspirational hotness at 10 and not let them get off until they’re 70-something? Is it really a form of equality to extend your sexual currency right through your 60s, like men do (but with far less maintenance)?
Think of it: today’s 9-year-old carries lip gloss to third grade (as my own daughter begged to do) and hopes to look 21. At 35, she’ll be bummed out because she doesn’t have the legs of a 13-year-old fashion model. And by the the time she’s Helen Mirren’s age, she’ll have been worrying about what she looks like in shorts for 57 years — with no end in sight. It’s exhausting. Plus, it distracts from and diminishes their other accomplishments.
A 2007 study by the American Psychological Association (APA) showed that the exposure to sexualized images of girls and young women (on TV, in movies, ads and toys) impacts girls’ self-esteem by setting unrealistic body expectations, fueling depression and the kind of self-objectification that has been linked directly with decreased condom use during sex and diminished sexual assertiveness.
In other studies, college women were shown two commercials with clichéd portrayals of women later expressed less interest in math- and science-related careers than students who hadn’t been shown the ads.
So if there’s one argument for saying to say no to 10-year-old models, it’s that it fuels a culture of perpetual preening and insecurity among both young girls and older women. At the very least we can let little kids get through grade school before they start spending their mornings wondering if they’re looking sexy enough that day or not.
How to do that? The experts say we should get them outside to play sports, away from the screens that bring these sexualized images home. And perhaps when they are in front of the TV, we parents can encourage a little less J-Woww and a little more of women like soccer star Hope Solo. And that goes for us grown-ups, too.