Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Throwing foetuses down the catwalk

There's a very interesting piece about a scout for a model agency, who twice a week goes and hangs around Top Shop looking for new girls to take on.

'There was a girl called Emily Smith who I saw when she was 11. I kept in touch with her mum for three years. Eventually we took her on. We have five girls at the moment who are about 13 or 14 and we have to get child performance licences, doctor's certificates, permission from the council, permission from their school. It's proper.'
The interesting thing to me, is how young the girls are to whom she gives her card. Why do models have to be in their very early teens? Their job is to model clothes, what does age have to do with it? Sorry to come the feminist harpie but could this obsession with pubescent girls have anything to do with infantilising women? Compare and contrast with Agyness Deyn, who is a geriatric 25 and only discovered when she was well past 20. Interesting face, loads of self-confidence, actual personality.


greying pixie said...

Your posting has raised a few thoughts in my mind:

I vaguely remember decades ago (1980s) Erica Jong gave a lecture on how society likes small women because they take up less room physically and therefore politically. I remember being quite taken with this idea until I saw how petite she was!

But I've known several small women who say they are often spoken to (even by other women) as if they are either children or stupid. Then people feel no shame at patting them affectionately on the top of their heads!

And a very tall large framed woman once told me that she has always felt that people expected so much from her both physically and spiritually because she is tall and appears so capable.

pear helene said...

Because as most women can testify, painting and dressing yourself older is easy, just put a 14 year old in heavy make-up and Queen Elisabeth's clothes and she will look matureish, but it is awfully hard to create the illusion that somebody is younger. So 14 plus 2 years of training makes around 16, which is the ideal age to put whatever clothes on the girl. Around 20 it starts to matter what kind of clothes they wear, because outlandish combinations start to look ridiculous if they are not in sync with the woman herself. Agyness has a cool look, but it is hers and not the designer's, any designer's, she will always ring true. With a 14-16 year old there is no personality and style yet to come through. Which makes them more like a empty canvas.
Which opens up consumer base. Let's be honest I like to look at Agyness, she has a great style. But I will never wear what she wears, because her style and my style (not to mention body type) do not mesh.

Linda Grant said...

I take your point that models are a blank slate, but I don't see why they have to be in all circumstances. Naomi Campbell, whatever her deficiencies of personality, simply looks amazing whatever she wears. I would not call her a blank slate. Indeed the trend for Latvian models, is reducing women to total zeros.

Deja Pseu said...

I think the trend toward very young models has waxed and waned for at least a couple of decades. Kim Chernin's (excellent) book, "The Obsession" was written in 1980, and talks about many of these same things: how even images of grown women are often shown in very girlish clothes and poses, how younger, undeveloped models are so prevalent, how the "ideal" woman's body seems to resemble an adolescent boy's, and how the idealization of smaller and smaller women's bodies reflects a deep-seated ambivalence toward women's growing power. One particular passage said (paraphrased), in a society that promotes childlike images of women, it's predictable that children will become more and more sexualized (which has certainly happened...seeing ads for back-to-school clothing for 8-year-old girls that show them wearing makeup and flouncing around like hoochie dancers is disturbing).

Belle de Ville said...

Younger and thinner and thinner and younger...where will it stop?
This weekend the Wall Street Journal has an article on an aspiring model who at 6'2" and a size 4 has been told that she needs to get down to a loose size other words a size zero. (The idea that any girl over 6 feet tall should be a size zero is, to me, freakish as if she has some sort of pysical disorder that stopped bone growth.)
Of course by the time this aspiring model gets down to this miniscule size she might be too old at age 18!

Maybe the girls on the catwalk need to be 14-16, but in the print media, with photo shop, it isn't difficult to create the illusion of youth.

Anonymous said...

I think the title of this post was a bit more offensive necessary and misleading -- I thought the PETA and Pro Life people had gotten together.

That said, the issue is one that merits discussion.

In response to greying pixie's comment about Erica Jong; people who are viewed as role models are filled with contradictions. If they actually walked their talks they wouldn't have gained prominence to begin with. It's kind of hard to be a woman and to fail to realize that being thin gives you more opportunities. So I can't exactly blame Jong for not going out and gaining 30 pounds for the movement even if I personally deplore the emphasis on unhealthy thinness.

As a small woman, I can say that I am often treated condescendingly. I once complained about this on a blog and a woman (a complete stranger) said it was "all about how [I] carried [myself]."

Thanks. At my place of employment at the time, I had been wearing suits and conducting myself in a very professional manner; not skipping down the hall and licking a lollipop.

People make judgments; the rapidity with which they make them and our frequent helplessness before them is not something we can ignore.

Anonymous said...

Adding to my 20:06 comment:

As for the issue of very young, super-thin models, I'm afraid that part of the reason is the usual one:

Too many women are willing to put up with it, or are seduced by the glamor.

Anonymous said...

"a bit more offensive THAN WAS necessary"

Linda Grant said...

The title of the post is a quote from the tv series, Absolutely Fabulous.

Anonymous said...

For a great view of the "girls" that walked the catwalk in the late 80s/90s, I recommend Lucian Perkins' Runway Madness: large-scale photos he took on and around the shows with brief editorials from the fabulous Robin Givhan. (It's out of print, but there are cheap used copies available)

The "girls" had so much personality. They look youthful, but not like children. It's shocking to look at a whole line of models from that period and contrast them with the zero robot look of recent shows.

-- desertwind

Anonymous said...

PS - I'm 5'2" (eyes of blue) and was a skinny little thing until menopause. Perhaps I was too dim to notice, but I don't think I was ever pat on the head.

It's also possible that some older men's attention was a little more creepy than even I picked up on at the time. I just thought: ewww. this "old guy" must be trying to hold on to his youth! I never thought "daddy".


-- desertwind

rosaria said...

Re Ab Fab: If I remember correctly, I think it was Patsy's boss Magda who said "If the models get any younger, Pats, they'll be chucking foetuses down the catwalk".

Just brilliant.

greying pixie said...

anonymous - I totally agree with you. I would never expect our role models to wear hair shirts in order to be heard. Not in a million years. I was just being honest about the naive knee jerk reaction at the time of a twenty something woman, ie. me. I think I felt the same about Naomi Wolf after reading 'The Beauty Myth'. With time and experience I've learned to judge people by what they have to say.

Regarding the infantilizing of women, I've just been flicking through the August edition of Italian Vogue and it's full of Linda Evangelista and Naomi Campbell giving their professional all. One wonders why the comeback. Could it be that this season's grownup styles (eg. Prada) need a woman's figure to show them off?

In Italian there is a word for the thin bony look - 'secca' which means dry. It is not considered a compliment to be called this, and yet I think the Milan catwalks use these thin young models more than any others.

Marissa said...

Funny, I just wrote about this subject on my own blog--prompted by seeing some photos of Carla Bruni in her modeling days and comparing them to today's young skin-and-bones fashion models. I am in my early twenties, too young to remember the 1990s supermodel era, and it freaks me out that models these days can be 4 or 5 years younger than I am!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification re the title. Sorry! I'm an American, but have seen some episodes of AbFab.

Anonymous said...

It would be the heights of absurdity to expect Erica Jong to pack on the pounds to prove her feminist mettle, however she does have much to answer for in that respect - namely the way she tortured her daughter when the latter put on weight as a teenager. Constantly berating her and infamously refusing to let daughter accompany her to a social event to which they had both been invited.

Evidently the two have reconciled, though.

pear helene said...

By the way Olympics, 1984 LA woman sprint and this woman (Florence Griffith Joyner ) changed my body view forever. I recognized that I am build like a sprinter. I always was doing ok on 100m sprint, in ballet I could jump like the boys and this woman made me love my body for what it is, tights not fitting into any normal jeans included. Sorry for my lengthy posts today, but Olympics always gives me that sentimentality and the hope that some other 13 year old will find her body type in the wide range offered by the different sports, thats why woman wrestling and weight lifting are important. Because you never see womens bodies like these elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Also from the '84 Games, Mary Lou Retton emerged to challenge the expected physique of the young female gymnast. I remember the interview during which Bela Karolyi was questioned about her curvy-muscular frame--he told the reporter that she was a "...little flyer, not a little flower!!". Guess China didn't get the memo:
63 pounds?!? C'mon!

Anonymous said...


It's probably something practical like getting to the child-girls before other modelling agencies so you start younger where others have not looked yet. The article does state that they do wait a few years.

The younger the model, the lower the pay perhaps?

And young is prettier. Consider Britney, who's lost her bloom at age 25. Or Lindsay Lohan who was gorgeous at 18 but not so now.

Naomi is successful because she looks nothing like her age. If you see the editorial of 90s supermodels in Vanity Fair (the one with Carla Bruni on the cover), she looks the youngest by far.

The fact that the original supermodels are feted should prove that women are well represented on the runway.