Why Are High-Fashion Models Now 12 Years Old?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
May 21 2012 7:37 AM

Tweens on the Runway

When did high fashion models get so young?

(Continued from Page 1)

Critics of the latest extreme youthquake often point to sample sizes—clothes that are made for runway shows and magazine shoots and that usually range from size 0 to 2. Ben Barry, whose Toronto agency has made its name representing a more diverse collection of models than typically found on catwalks, says that 20 years ago, during the era of the supermodel, runway clothes ranged from 6 to 8, sizes that some agencies now consider “plus.”

Barry says designers claim that making smaller sizes allows them to save money by cutting back on the fabric and labor involved in creating expensive couture items. But this argument falls short, he points out, when you consider the hundreds of thousands of dollars fashion houses spend on runway shows. In any case, while casting directors and magazine editors blame the designers for making such small sample sizes, designers blame the agents, Barry says. If only the girls being supplied weren’t so thin, they could make bigger clothes!

Supply and demand also feed on each other in more toxic ways. Big fashion houses want “a girl no one has used before,” British modeling agent Carole White told the Guardian earlier this year. And it can’t hurt that the younger they are, the less they ask for and the easier they are to control. “You have more power, you have more influence, to guide and direct,” says a female scout in Girl Model, the disturbing documentary on model scouting that comes out in September.

Advertisement

The girls not only start young; they end young. Elizabeth Wissinger, a CUNY Sociology professor, says there are so many girls being scouted and so much desire for that new face that models progress from next-thing to no-thing in no time. An agent she interviewed remarked that “a good career now is three to five years.”

Girl Model shows scouts and agents in Siberia seizing triumphantly on the most promising girls, relieved to have snagged them before anyone else. In one scene, they admire photos of a 12-year-old in panties and thigh-highs, pronouncing her “extraordinary.” In another, a scout praises a skeletal 13-year-old named Nadya, whose youthful look she predicts will be perfect for the Japanese market. “She looks young, almost like a prepubescent girl,” the scout says.

Fashion sociologist Ashley Mears has written that over time, the fashion world’s notion of ideal womanhood has been reconceptualized as something less, well, womanly. If high fashion is created by the elite for the elite, everything about it must be unattainable. And “there’s something kind of average, a little too attainable and too cheap about curves,” Mears writes.

With womanhood suspect, it makes sense to put girls on the runway. They possess a quality most grown women don’t: They haven’t yet been polluted. Marc Jacobs—whose recent use of under-16 runway models, and of a sultry and incredibly young-looking Dakota Fanning in a perfume ad, ignited controversy—once remarked that youth was sexier than anything else. “I'm by no means a pedophile,” Jacobs said (a bad way to start a sentence), “but there's a purity to youth.” In Girl Model, an agent named Tigran puts it another way. He suggests that the pretty girls he finds in the shacks of Siberia have just two ways of escaping poverty: modeling or prostitution. Young girls have “dignity,” he says. They haven’t yet spread their legs.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Medical Examiner

Is It Better to Be a Hero Like Batman?

Or an altruist like Bruce Wayne?

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The World’s Human Rights Violators Are Signatories on the World’s Human Rights Treaties

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.