Thylane Loubry Blondeau may only be ten years old but she has already featured on the cover of Vogue Enfants, starred in ad campaigns for the children’s lines of major brands, and worked with top fashion photographers, including Dani Brubaker.
Vogue Enfants cover Thumbnail | Click to enlarge | Image Sourced from Stylesight:
Her career commenced at the age of four when she walked in Jean-Paul Gaultier’s spring show in 2005. With her recent feature in Vogue Paris, with an editorial that foregrounds fashion’s fetishist and often exploitative relationship with extreme youth, she is hitting the headlines.
The editorial itself, while disturbing, had an important point to make. It was purposefully disturbing in its attempt to make the reader question the fashion industry’s handling of young girls as a natural resource to be exploited and altered into product. It was published knowingly, in an attempt to incite outrage. The plan worked. The French press has become preoccupied with the materialisation of photographs of 10-year old Thylane Loubry in adult-stylised poses. Thylane’s mother – entertainment presenter / reality show contestant / fashion designer – doesn’t understand why the controversy has arisen. An article in the Nouvel Observateur reports Thylane’s mother presenting a stubborn defence of her child’s modelling work:
“These photos date from December! It’s pretty surprising to see them resurface seven months later. I understand that this could seem shocking. I admit I myself was shocked during the photo shoot. But let me be precise: the only thing that shocked me is that the necklace she wore was worth €3 million!”
The problem here is not necessarily with the recent shoot in Vogue. It is with the fashion industry per se. What is particularly worrying about the Vogue Paris shoot is that it is represents the attempts fashion makes to sexualize inappropriately young girls every day and no one seems to attend to the problem. Most working models commence their careers around the age of 13, not much older than Thylane. Modelling is often a lonely and difficult career, which entails long journeys away from home, far from family and schooling. No-one takes account of these realities when they see the children styled in sheer clothing, strutting down the runway or posing in magazines, pouting with tousled hair. Fashion images of girls far from the age of consent who have been made to look ‘sexy’ by adult styling professionals do not seem to register with most people as being inappropriate. But then a Vogue poses a 10-year-old in this manner and suddenly people start showing concern for these children. The images are disturbing but the important point here is that the practice they represent is also disturbing.
The Vogue Paris spread is not what has grabbed the attention of child psychologists, journalists, fashion industry professionals, and bloggers. It is that most of the body of Thylane’s work (which her coverage in Vogue has brought to light) seems age-inappropriate. The Vogue shots may be sensationalistic, but they are less concerning than the topless shot of Thylane lying on a bed or the photo of Thylane posing without pants on a (different) bed. Then there’s the implied nude photo in which an artfully placed necklace and Thylane’s hair conceal her chest. It is these photos, and countless others like it that make people worried that the fashion industry and the older professionals who run it are not showing this child the appropriate concern for her image and welfare.
The camera is not the culprit here; the photographers, make-up artists and fashion editors are responsible for the production of these images. It is not accidental that Thylane Blondeau’s pictures look sexually charged. Also, let’s not forget that these pictures are at least seven months old.
The image represents what the fashion industry calls an ‘implied nude’: should a 10-year-old really be shot for one?
In this light, Thylane’s mother’s comments seem ludicrous. She says (conveniently forgetting the nude pictures of her child):
“In these pictures my daughter is not nude, so let’s not exaggerate here! People who aren’t seeing these pictures in good faith, too bad for them! I’m really above all that.”
She insists that her daughter’s work is not excessive, and that her education is not suffering:
“We have turned down ten film projects, a Ralph Lauren campaign… I turn down at least three-quarters of the things we’re offered. For the moment, she’s leading a normal life.”
For the moment? Moments don’t last long.
While the Vogue spread is not entirely inappropriate, there is something creepy about the body of Thylane’s work and fashion’s fascination with her. I don’t see why it is necessary to photograph a 10-year-old girl hooking her thumb through her jeans and slinging her hip out? There are plenty of sexy women out there prepared to pose for the cameras.
Whether it is that the magazines and photographers have chosen to present Thylane or that viewers are reading more into the photographs than was intended, the very fact that the photos cause us to ask questions about the sexualisation of children is terrifying. What cautions are being taken to make sure Thylane is comfortable with these images? Can a 10-year-old girl understand that she is being portrayed reads as adult and somewhat sexualized? Is a 10-year-old girl really capable of consenting to being shot in the nude and is she really aware of the consequences of that consent?
Child psychologists are concerned that representations of grown-up beauty are giving young girls unhealthy ideas about body image. Shari Miles-Cohen, senior director of women’s programs for the American Psychological Association (APA) says:
“We don’t want kids to grow up too fast. We want them to be able to develop physically, emotionally, psychologically and socially at appropriate rates for their age.”
This is the point that French Vogue was attempting to make, running photos of Blondeau and two other young child models playing designer dress-up with the caption ‘Quel maquillage à quel âge?’ / What makeup at what age?
While their intentions might have been sincere enough, the reception to the shot is epitomised in the words of Chloe Angyal, editor of Feministing.com:
“This isn’t edgy. It’s inappropriate, and creepy, and I never want to see a nine-year-old girl in high-heeled leopard print bedroom slippers ever again.”
Sexualized images can have lasting effects on the young girls who see them. The APA insists that sexualisation by the media affects how girls think about femininity and sexuality as it promotes appearance and physical attractiveness as key values and is inevitably linked to low self-esteem, eating disorders and depression. Paul Millar, associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University in Phoenix said:
“The research clearly shows that the fashion industry affects girls and women’s images of themselves and their self-esteem if they do not meet the industry ‘image’ that is currently in vogue. Even the very young are quite conscious of media images of what is ‘pretty’ and desirable.”
For Millar, the problem is that photography of child models crosses a line. “Any creepy child pornographer could plead ‘artistic license’,” he said.
While Thylane Loubry Blondeau’s grown-up look is creating a stir, she is not the first mini-model to stir up the sexualisation debate. In 2007, a 13-year-old Dakota Fanning posed in a controversial campaign for Marc Jacobs. A 15-year-old Brooke Shields instigated controversy in 1981 when she posed provocatively in Calvin Klein jeans. The controversy extends to child beauty pageants and even prospective pop stars. A YouTube video of 8- and 9-year-olds dancing to Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’ caused a similar uproar in 2010.
Child psychologist and professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Vivian Friedman, speaking to ABC News, said:
“People have always admired young ballerinas in scanty costumes, but those performances weren’t explicitly sexual. There was an aesthetic that didn’t remind you of being in bed.”
She argues that photographs of Thylane dressed in a tutu and in bed illustrate the difference:
“[The photos] clearly create an image of the girl as an adult woman, both in the clothing, the postures and emotional content of the images. The message is that very young girls can be dressed and viewed as young adult women.”
This debate is taking place in the wake of a recent Government initiative in the UK to enforce restrictions on the sexualisation of children in the media and sexual content in advertising more generally. Reg Bailey, the Chief Executive of the Mothers’ Union, was commissioned to conduct an independent review on the pressures faced by children today. It revealed that 88 per cent of parents agreed that children are under pressure grow up too quickly, with 58 per cent accounting this to celebrity culture. A spokesperson for the Mothers’ Union told MailOnline:
“We have grave concerns about the modelling agency who represent Blondeau, which clearly does not know if it represents a child or an adult. Photo shoots requiring her, a 10-year-old-girl, to dress in full make-up, teetering heels and a dress with a cleavage cut to the waist across her pre-pubescent body deny Blondeau the right to be the child she is. These images would, we hope, post-Bailey Review, not pass through the standards of magazines, on street advertising and other media within the UK.”
The fashion world is fucked up; it loves to infantilize grown women and portray girls as though they were adults, which is often creepy.