In 2018, Vogue Magazine and its publisher Condé Nast announced a new policy that no model under the age of eighteen would be photographed for editorial shoots. Vogue’s policy isn’t binding; it is an attempt at self-regulation, so other fashion and media houses can agree with it or not. But as one of the biggest movers in fashion, Vogue is held to the highest standard. This makes its decision to take a kind of responsibility and lead the way in protecting underage models especially significant, because it has led to others following.
The allure of minors as models
Why have minors been used in fashion shoots in the first place? There are a few reasons. First, fashion houses may like to use minor girls because just like a lot of industries, the idea of youth and beauty will always sell. Sometimes minors are also cheaper to hire and can find themselves in situations where they may easily be taken advantage of. Kids who are promised a next gig or a modeling contract will be eager to agree to work long hours, to travel to new places to be shot and styled by strangers, and to wear whatever they are told to wear. The combination of these factors places a lot of pressure on young models entering the industry—pressures that aren’t really fair to expect minors to face.
Second, clothes for fashion samples are often cut to fit smaller frames. This began as a result of World War rationing where all of our textiles needed to be used for the war. Naturally designers needed to save fabric, thus patterns got cut smaller. This natural adjustment combined with our society’s obsession with being smaller, skinnier, more petite results in the current culture we have today. And we’ve yet to adjust back. There’s always been this odd praise towards a childlike body image in the media, especially in couture fashion. This is most obvious in European and French fashion, but it’s also prevalent in the U.S. as well. However this has an effect on women’s body image, when clothing is being modeled by kids that are not even fully physically developed. Now, we understand that such an image is not entirely healthy and that changing it has to start with media and often fashion houses and magazines.
Abuse in the fashion industry
Mistreatment of young models can also cross the line into outright abuse. In February 2020 the New York Times exposed allegations about sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct by Victoria’s Secret executives. Compounding these abuses, the late Jeffrey Epstein also claimed to be acting as a Victoria’s Secret agent to lure some of his victims into his company.
Less of the abuse seen comes from actual photo shoots, model fittings, and day to day working with models. It comes from power dynamics that come into play when photographers, editors, CEO’s use their power to get young women and sometimes girls to do anything in chase of a dream.
There are always exceptions
The Vogue/Condé Nast policy doesn’t affect modeling of children’s clothing, and also doesn’t prevent the magazine from shooting a minor who is the subject of an article, if they are chaperoned and styled in an age-appropriate manner. I really liked H&M’s ad campaign from last spring of a group of kids, who were styled without any makeup, and with their hair kind of messy, as if they had just come home from school. The theme was kids being kids in their natural habitat. It was realistic, appropriate, and more importantly they put the clothes they were selling in a real life context. You can totally have kids photo shoots that sell kids’ clothing without having them be over-sexualized or being sold to anyone but kids.
But there will always be edge cases. The division between “art photography” and fashion photography is a difficult one. Editorial fashion photography is an art form, and it comes down to a judgment call about where a shoot featuring nudity crosses the line from artistic to exploitative. One could argue that when it’s purely done as an art form it’s not also being done to sell hundreds of thousands of units of clothing at the same time. But who gets to draw such a line? Can we separate the starving art photographer from the commercial fashion photographer? There is no easy right or wrong answer. But what’s not right is to cross the line into shooting sexualized photographs when a minor is involved. It will always be inappropriate whether it be for fashion’s sake or not.
Guidelines that make sense for fashion
There are some common-sense guidelines, some of which Prostasia Foundation explored at our May 2019 workshop about how Internet companies should choose to deal with “borderline” child modeling images. In particular, the context of a photo shoot is a key consideration. If the child is styled to look very sexy and virginal, all sprawled out, this is a signal of a questionable shoot that blurs the line between fashion and porn. When you take underage people and put them in a the context of an adult photo shoot, that’s where we should be alarmed.
Vogue’s policy makes sense for the magazine, and it pushes the industry in the right direction—without the need for government censors to be called in. We live in a culture where girls and women are valued by their looks, and the whole industry feeds off that. Such can really have an effect on girls and women’s self worth, and child models can really be taken advantage of without clear standards and transparency. Acknowledging this systemic problem, Vogue’s policy is a thoughtful step towards an industry-wide response that will help to protect young models.