When in 2011 the 17 year old actress Dakota Fanning posed for a perfume campaign shot by Juergen Teller for Marc Jacobs, many raised their eyebrows at the result. She sits holding a bottle of the ‘Lola!’ perfume in between her legs, looks straight at the camera in an almost beckoning manner, and has her delicate prom dress hiked up to expose her pale thighs. The advert was eventually banned in Britain for ‘sexualising children’ - but why would a creative director approve this advert in the first place? It would seem that innocence, for companies, is bliss.
The idea of virginal, natural beauty may be one that stretches back millennia to when vestal virgins embodied the purity of goddesses and therefore, womankind. In today’s fashion industry, it is an obsession that risks exploiting children and sexualising them in imagery - all for the sake of making sales. This ‘shock' tactic’ is employed repeatedly by companies who can use negative media attention to their advantage to expand social reach.
The subtle implication that only ‘pure’ childlike features, untouched by the realities of weariness, illness, the natural passing of years are beautiful is just as damaging to adult women, who are jostling for space both metaphorical and physical in the fashion media.
The notion that the ageing process represents a dimming of beauty is a contemporary idea, where ‘growing old gracefully’ has been replaced with a desperate 'battle against time' fuelled by the multi-billion pound anti-ageing industry. This new attitude to youth means that girls are idealised and seen as ‘in their prime’ earlier than they can fully form adult bodies, and opinions.
The difficulty with quantifying a border between exploitation and artistic fashion imagery when it concerns child models, is that they are essentially unable to consent to anything. Even if their consent is given, the understanding that accompanies that decision might not be there.
Fashion will always be an industry that courts controversial imagery, and without the proper precautions put in place to protect the best interests of children and indeed help to mould the public perception of youth in a positive light, will continue to do so unchallenged.
This article was originally published by PeachyNKeen in 2014, and has been updated for 2018.