Age barriers no way to solve modelling woes

14-year-old Sofia made headlines when she was chosen to be the face or Dior in 2015. Questions were raised regarding suitability of adolescent models in a industry where sexual exploitation issues are rife.

18 is not the magic number end to modelling woes

For a long time, the modelling industry featured fresh-faced adolescents who are professionally trained to appeal to adults potentially more than three times their age. Models as young as 13 are sought after because their often ultra-slim physiques fit perfectly into the petite clothing samples of fashion maisons. That is merely brushing the surface of the issue.

Former model agent, Carolyn Kramer, poignantly recounted that her agency had sent many girls, some as young as 13, to high profile photographers who were rumoured to be sexual predators. Besides the high incidence of sexual exploitation, former Australian Vogue Editor, Kirstie Clements, also said that many went on to dangerously starve themselves and had had surgery to reduce their bust size to fit into the pin-thin outfits. When they don’t fit, they get reprimanded by their agency and may lose out on job offers.

Some models develop eating disorders and depression due to the constant, unhealthy demand for them to stay thin. Also, the industry is rife with incidents of sexual harassment and models may not be in the position to defend themselves.

As their ordeals became public, fashion conglomerate Kerring group, which owns Gucci and Balenciaga, promulgated their new controversial guideline to hire models only above 18 “to represent adults” in runways and advertisements. While some laud Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault’s valiant attempt to right the wrong, others like LVMH “firmly disagree(s)” with Kering’s decision and argues that, “What matters is not so much the age as the conditions under which models work”. Currently, models between the ages of 16 and 18 represent up to 20% of those strutting forth at LVMH-brand runways.

The fashion industry ought to first question the purpose they are banning the use of underaged models. Fundamentally, modelling, like other forms of professional performances—acting, dancing and even singing—are, arguably, no less heavy in their alleged sex appeal. Surely, these performers may not be made to strut vivaciously down the runway, but they are similarly subjected to heavy make-up, the occasional skimpy outfit, and are required to stay (unhealthily) thin. Furthermore, according to a report by Centre for Talent Innovation, the media and entertainment industry is rampant with incidents of sexual harassment with up to 41% of women reporting that they were harassed at some point in their careers. It is therefore hard to say that these are issues unique to modelling. Why then should there be a minimum age ban specific to modelling?

Let’s be clear: solely mandating models be above the age of 18 is not the panacea to models’ woes. Models above the age of 18 will still face sexual harassment and body image issues if they work in an abusive working environment. Conversely, if an under-18 model works in an environment that prioritises their well being, he or she may thrive.

Amber Skaggs is 14-year-old and has been with Master Ballet Academy and Phoenix Ballet for 6 years. Some of her achievements include being a two time Hope Award winner, a World Ballet Competition Silver medalist, a top 10 best dancer at the Dance Awards and a National Title winner at the Kids Artistic Revenue.

Zara Larsson performing in 2015, when she was just 17

12-year-old Mekenna Grace, starred in multiple movies and television series.

In fact, some of the world’s most successful models and performers start early in life, as young as 13 even. Supermodel Karlie Kloss started modelling at the age of 14 and hit her first runway show as a lanky 15-year-old. It may seem like fluff, but the aura of confidence and sophistication that runway models exude takes years to finesse. This is precisely why some of the most successful models, singers or even athletes start early.

Somehow, it does not sit well with the public knowing that teenagers are recruited into the modelling industry, which is often unfairly associated with debauchery. However, statistically speaking, alcoholism, drug addiction and associated vices are actually ubiquitous amongst the youth. An outright ban of under-18 models is a potential double whammy: it might fail to address the problems and simultaneously thwarts the models’ professional development. Instead, a more holistic approach could be attempted. Rather than arbitrarily raising the minimum age, we should work towards improving the models’ working environment.

At 15, Karlie Kloss walked for Calvin Kleins’s Spring 2008 show.

While there has been progress, there is still room for improvement. But the idea should never be that models turning 18 will magically resolve some of the fashion industry’s most insidious problems. Down this slippery slope argument, we may logically end up banning actors, dancers and singers below 18 since they are not spared from the woes of their model counterparts. If that happens, we may be missing out of some of the finest artistes/artists we adore like Emma Watson, Ryan Gosling, and Natalie Portman.

Nevertheless, the almost industry-wide practice of hiring models above 16 (there are still sporadic instances where under-16 models hit the runway), may still be justified because fashion modelling is inherently different. Individuals have to possess some means to fend for themselves, and have a certain level of physical and psychological maturity to exemplify the vogue. Granted, raising the minimum age to 18 possibly overlaps the concerns addressed above and hampers the models’ professional development. Perhaps the way forward is not to raise age limits, but towards a safer working space.