little sexy girls modeling

A version of this piece also appears on HuffPost here.

I saw Girl Model with my mother-in-law, and when we walked out into the bustle and glare of the Village, I was dazed and I couldn’t think of anything to say for a minute. I had that shaky feeling of not knowing what was real. A girl in fishnets, pink, spiked hair, and leather pushed impatiently by me. I watched her. And then a woman in her forties, just skin and bones, her makeup perfect, head up.

The film, from directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, was bleak—bleak Siberian landscapes, gray and low and cold, punctuated only by choppy veins of water, and by spindly, tacked together structures that house whole families. The girls who hope to become models will grow up in these houses, but they haven’t grown up yet. They are only twelve or thirteen when they are evaluated by the local branch of a large modeling agency. A few of them will be invited to go overseas.

They stand, hundreds of girls, in their underwear and bras, balanced on high heels, faces upturned as the camera passes over them. They give small smiles.

(source)

This is what they have to offer—this is their ticket, their chance, their thread of possibility. These skinny, naked bodies.

The scouts are quick to eliminate them. Too fat. Pimples. Just not right. Only a few are selected. Modeling, we are informed over and over again in the film by the men who run the agencies, is about charm. It’s about dignity. It’s about being a special kind of girl. There’s a higher purpose here. Something beyond frail flat chests in tiny cloth bras and shoulders held resolutely back, trembling a little.

 

The girls who are selected are promised money that they usually never get. Later, in a country where they don’t speak the language, kept in a dingy dormroom cell, they will go into debt, posing seductively for photos that the agency sells and never compensates them for.

The film follows Nadya, one of the girls who is chosen to fly to Tokyo, where she is told she will make money for her family. She is so excited. She feels so lucky and special, you can see it in her face. Off she goes.

“Say you are fifteen,” she is told. She is thirteen, all coltish limbs and round blue eyes.

Beauty, she explains, when she’s asked to define it by the filmmaker, is in the soul.

Which, you know, breaks your heart a little. Beauty, in the world of modeling, is in the measurements. In the specifics of the body. Beauty is in the fetish, you realize as you listen to the scout, a former model herself, struggling with her role in all this, explain that the Japanese market has very particular requirements. Very young, very young, she says.

Blond, wide-eyed, sexy children.

And of course, I think they are all twenty-five, in the photos, by the time they are made up and posed, lips moist and open, eyes slitted tauntingly. They must be twenty-five.

“She is really special,” says the owner of the agency, gesturing at photos of a smoldering hot woman, in black lace, her face fierce and inviting. She is fourteen, it turns out. So, not a woman yet.

Often, the line between prostitution and modeling is blurry, explains the scout who was once one of these girls herself. They are in debt after all, because most of them can’t find the work they are promised, and they grow used to their bodies as objects to be bartered, to be given up. She explains that some agencies, “very high end,” do both.

It is easy to think of models as a fact of life. The fashion industry is everywhere I look. Even the stock photos that populate average websites feature sleek-skinned, pouting models engaged in every imaginable activity, holding the things that you just googled.

I forget that so often, the features that I am used to being shown to me as the beauty ideal are the features of a child. Subtle, wide-spaced, soft features. Little blips of noses, huge eyes.

(she is sixteen. she was just the first face i noticed when i googled “model”. source)

I forget that modeling is an international endeavor, and that even when you read that your country has made new rules– they must be sixteen! They must not be starving to death!– that doesn’t mean those rules are being followed, or that they are being followed elsewhere.

I don’t think to worry about who is under the makeup. If I think of models at all, it’s to recognize the constant, incessant damage their images cause in the lives of girls who don’t look like them.

The thing I kept thinking, when I could think again at all, sitting in Westville with my mother-in-law, eating an enormous chicken gyro, was that the beauty we are shown in the endless images we are given is a fetish.

It is a specific moment in time. A dangerous moment that starves its adherents and its victims (the girl models in the film sign a contract with the agency that says if they gain even a centimeter around any part of their body, the contract is terminated).  That cheats girls of their childhood and cons families into giving up their daughters, only to be plunged into debt. That twists our ideas and our ideals and gives us a version of sexiness that is disturbingly skewed and one-sided.

But it is only a moment. And in a way, it loses some of its power, when you see the inside of the industry. The spilling innards.

This is a roomful of anxious, nearly-naked children. These are the people who will make money off of them. It is a closed loop, the models being selected by the people who will photograph them and put them in magazines. The idea of sex appeal and beauty sustaining itself, feeding off of hope and desperation.

It’s clear that someone needs to protect these girls. Someone needs to stop this. There are other things that girls can do, that they are about, beside their bodies.

It’s also clear that this is not about me. It is not about the girls being bombarded by these images. It’s not about the women who are trying so hard to look younger and younger, to stay relevant in a culture where most of the women famous for their beauty reach the height of their fame in their mid-teens.

I have always been at least a little uncomfortable with the look that fashion demands of girls and women. There is something about it that is always nudging me, poking me between the shoulder blades when my back is turned. Beauty is bigger than this. I have thought so many people are beautiful in ways that don’t have anything to do with the prototypical beauty in the ads for anything and everything.

Every single girl in the big, blank room in Siberia is pretty. I can barely tell them apart. But the model scouts can. They know exactly what they’re looking for. They know all of the measurements. They have perfectly memorized the fetish. It’s a fetish that turns girls into things. I hate that. I am scared of it.

I hate that it is given any power over any of us.

And I know, at the same time, that it has almost nothing to do with beauty, as a concept. That’s the ironic thing. This is supposed to be some pure form of beauty. These are people who seek it out, in its most distilled, most perfect manifestations, in the freezing rural north, in school yards in certain small towns in certain parts of Brazil. They consider themselves connoisseurs, saviors, artists. But this isn’t beauty, it’s marketing. It’s money. It’s the predictable evolution of a hungry industry always looking for the next extreme. Younger, thinner, more scandalous, more scintillating.

Beauty is bigger than this. The scouts can’t master it.

The crime is that we have allowed beauty to be condensed, to be defined so restrictively that we can eliminate a whole gymnasium full of girls without a second thought. That we can allow the same, highly specific images of the same type of features and the same kind of body dominate the market to the point that everyone else is practically forced to feel inadequate at one time or another or all the time. The crime is that we are harming the girls and women who are confronted with these images every day. And the crime is that little girls who are only trying to help their families get some food and fix the leaking roof in the middle of Siberia are being used and thrown away, just as if they were things, and not people. That’s just about the ugliest thing of all.

*   *   *

Unroast: Today I love the way I look next to Bear in the mirror.

P.S. Speaking of different kinds of beauty, check out my column over at The Frisky about how awkward beauty should be its own category.

 

23 Comments »

Kate on September 7th 2012 in beauty, body

23 Responses to “little sexy girls modeling”

  1. Mandy responded on 07 Sep 2012 at 11:27 am #

    Another good reason to boycott fashion magazines–which I have done for the past fifteen years. Because the images are not of real women.
    Because, fiftten years ago, I did a research paper on the unrealistic body image perpetuated by the diet and advertizing industry.
    I found out that the models are posed, made-up, taped, photographed with careful lighting, aribrushed, and computer “enhanced.”
    I watched a program on TV, a few years ago, that showed a man take a photo of a model with perfectly pretty legs, and digitally extend them another few inches! Then he changed the color of her eyes.
    And, as you found out, a lot of the models are barely into their teens.
    I object to all of this by boycotting fashion magazines. I literally don’t buy into the images they’re pushing.
    It makes me very angry–for the models, who despite being chosen by extremely rigid standards are being told they’re STILL not good enough, and for all of the impressionable young girls who are bombarded with this artificial “ideal.”

  2. Gala responded on 07 Sep 2012 at 11:41 am #

    I saw this the other day. It was horrifying. I spoke to a girl last night at Fashion’s Night Out who works at a modelling agency. I told her about this movie & she looked at me & said, “Yeah. I work in human trafficking.”

  3. C. responded on 07 Sep 2012 at 11:42 am #

    Great post and I agree with all of your observations. I also, like Mandy above, haven’t bought a fashion magazine (or entertainment/celeb mag) in 10+ years. Ditto television. I do everything I can to minimize my exposure to this toxic stuff.

    One thing that I think about and find deeply, deeply disturbing is the way these images have become synonymous not only with ‘beauty’, but with ‘sexuality’ too. It is no secret that many, many adult men masturbate to the ‘sexy’ images of what are, in fact, kids playing dress up. It makes my skin crawl.

  4. Kate responded on 07 Sep 2012 at 11:43 am #

    @Gala
    Wow. What a blunt response. There you go. Maybe she should write about it at some point? (My hope for everyone, relating to every serious issue)

  5. Gala responded on 07 Sep 2012 at 11:45 am #

    Yeah, she said she wanted to use her time working there as fodder for a book!

  6. Kate responded on 07 Sep 2012 at 11:47 am #

    @Gala
    Smart! I love how everything in life can be book fodder. It makes everything feel more worthwhile.

  7. Jennifer Jo responded on 07 Sep 2012 at 12:40 pm #

    That first picture reminds me of the Holocaust.

  8. Jenn responded on 07 Sep 2012 at 1:39 pm #

    I’m saving this so my daughter can read it. She’s only 6 months old now, but I want her to understand this about beauty early in her life.

  9. Aurora responded on 07 Sep 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    C. –

    This idea that you’re not supposed to view teenagers as sexual is actually pretty new. History is full of teens getting married and having kids before they would be able to drive cars in America. The Virgin Mary herself is often guessed to have been between 13 and 15 in the Biblical story, and Shakespeare’s famous Romeo and Juliet were probably of similar age. If girls can have periods, they can have babies, and that starts way earlier than modern folk are comfortable believing. (Just because you *can* doesn’t mean you *should*, but this probably explains why teens are being fetishized. They’re not too young to be sexual, biologically, and back in history humans needed to mate as early as they could so they could produce a lot of children.)

  10. morgaine responded on 07 Sep 2012 at 1:51 pm #

    I am a model.

    I would never attempt to equate my situation with that of these girls. I am middle-class, over 18, and an American citizen. I am upfront about my privilege: what’s happening to these girls is horrible, and what I’m about to say is by no means an attempt to appropriate their experience and get offended on their behalf.

    That said, I don’t think there’s anything inherent in modeling itself that enables exploitation. Any occupation, devoid of proper regulation, has the potential to become exploitative. Many factory workers worldwide are terribly oppressed; that doesn’t mean there’s anything intrinsically soul-sucking about factory work. I realize this may be beside the point, but lines like “[t]here are other things that girls can do, that they are about, beside their bodies” strike a funny chord with me. It’s the poverty, the unscrupulous managers, the lax regulations, the stripping of personal agency that exploits these girls. Not the work itself.

    Modeling is work. It’s art. It’s more than standing around looking pretty: there’s a real synergy in a good shoot. A collusion with the photographer to create as much atmosphere as the two of you can. Yes, I may be selling my body in the literal sense. But that doesn’t mean I, or any other model, has renounced ownership over it. It doesn’t make my body “all that I am about”.

    To reiterate: I don’t mean to excuse what is happening to these girls. I understand how deep the corruption runs. I just don’t believe that modeling itself, making a living off one’s body and image, is necessarily the oppressive part. I believe that to bring about any real reform, modeling must first be respected as a conscious artistic endeavor rather than a last resort.

  11. morgaine responded on 07 Sep 2012 at 2:19 pm #

    *have renounced

  12. jaron responded on 07 Sep 2012 at 5:33 pm #

    completly agree with morgaine. My wife is a model and she makes a good 30,000 a year in the states doing modeling. Nothing nude, just normal photoshoots. She’s not perfect, but she has great energy with the camera and people like having her for photos. It’s an art.

    But this is a part of the industry that isn’t international. It’s just washington state. There is nothing wrong with modeling, in the same way there is nothing wrong with making and selling clothes.

    However these large mega corps seem to shove 12 year olds onto the cover of major mags and photoshop them into adults, and froce children to endlessly sew clothes and make shoes for pennies an hour.

    It’s sick :/ but modeling itself is not the cause. There is a large market for models 24-32 year old. Why are American companies even allowed to do this stuff just because it’s overseas??

  13. Robert responded on 08 Sep 2012 at 8:43 am #

    I’m a heterosexual man. I,and many men like me find nearly all models not that attractive.Clearly modelling has nothing to do with appealing to men.It is about women’s self-esteem.It also is to do with money.It is about achieving a look that is difficult for women to achieve. Given your genetics or age is a ‘given’,for many women the slenderness/gauntness/sheer youth is unobtainable. So the advertisers tell you to compensate with expensive skin and hair products,expensive clothes etc.
    Not suprising women have self-worth problems.Now ,however it looks like the sellers have woken up to the fact that there is another 50% of the population to sell to,ie men and have started the same process on the male population.

  14. Terry responded on 08 Sep 2012 at 11:37 am #

    Read your article on the Huff Post today and I had to say something Kate.
    After reading the article I was compelled to see your photo.
    So I looked on Google images.
    You extremely beautiful!! How could you let yourself ever judge beauty by gossip, magazines, media, movies, T.V…,

    I am a 49 happily married man and THE MALE brain does not use the media’s
    bias when judging female beauty. Maybe some young boys between 14-25 do but women do not want to attract men who have such weak sex drives that they need to be in the presence of an airbrushed Arabian perfection.
    No….real (vast majority) of men see BEAUTY and SEX appeal all around them and around every corner.

    I know from being in “the club” (male human species) (and yes…..WE TALK) – our sex drives much stronger than has been reported ;-)

    So yes Kate – you are very sexy and lucky hubby looks like a hell of a nice guy.

    Good blog.

    Later.

  15. San D responded on 08 Sep 2012 at 2:39 pm #

    Models always seemed like walking “hangers” to me, there to display the clothes, in ways that normal women with hips and breasts couldn’t do. Many years ago when red haired models were sought after, one of my students was approached on the New York streets for a modeling gig. He was over 6′ with blue eyes and red hair down his back accompanied with his oversized flannel shirt, baggy jeans, chained wallet to his pants, untied combat boots, and tatooed body. He, in his laid back way, said “what the hell”, and modeled for many magazines, enough to make money for college. He was flown around the world, but saw none of it except the runways. Although he did tell me that he had a lonely existance when there because he didn’t speak the different languages. He was a gentle soul, much like a golden retriever, in that you could virtually do anything to him (like tie his hair up in 1,000 knots, put black eyeliner across his entire face, make him have a vapid stare, walk down the runway), and he just took it. Eventually he stopped modeling. He missed his family and friends. He saw no glamour in the job, no excitement, but the pay was much better than he had ever seen in his life. I think that the women and men who are exploited in any industry are those who want to believe the lie, that if only….if only they were taller, if only they were thinner, if only they had red hair……if only they were smarter. You lose perspective in any thing you do in life if you can’t ferret out what is healthy for you and what is not. I think shows like American Idol and The Voice perpetuate the lie that if only…..everyone nowadays wants to be rich and famous in a nanosecond, and wanting to become a model is one of those industries that glorifies the few that make it to the top, and completely negates the yeoman/woman who is out there modeling everyday.

  16. Caitlin responded on 08 Sep 2012 at 8:56 pm #

    I agree with the “walking hangers” comment – at least for runway work, designers don’t want to deal with the extra work of tailoring their clothes for individual body types, so they require everyone to be the same, and with a woman’s body, the distribution of fat is almost never the same in two different women. Much easier for the designer to just find girls who have no fat on their bodies, because skeletal structures have less variation. It’s a shame, because I’d much rather see clothes for many shapes and sizes than something that will look good on less than 1% of the population :(

  17. Olivia responded on 11 Sep 2012 at 4:27 pm #

    I think this article highlights a real problem with the fashion industry – models are too young! I used to get a subscription to Vogue and I am heavily ‘in to’ fashion and yes, like everyone else I can’t stand the coat-hanger shaped models but the main thing is that it is a pre-pubescent body. These girls have child’s bodies because they are children.

    The reason I stopped reading Vogue was because they started to shoot younger and younger models. The girls in their major shoots were only 16, but were so over-sexualised that you couldn’t tell. Even my friends Dad commented that he thought one of the models was very attractive until he found out she was 16 and then he said he felt physically sick.

    And I agree with him! For me, it’s not the modeling as a job thats a problem, it’s the way they dress children as adults.

  18. someone responded on 12 Sep 2012 at 9:34 pm #

    I just had to leave a response to those who consider modelling art, i’m sorry but it’s not art. that is not to say that there is no art involved, there is, on the photographer’s end but the model becomes no more than a puppet in this scenario, replaceable. The common measurements and beauty standards of the industry make most model irrelevant in their own right, easily substituted.
    I find it heartbreaking when i see a girl aspiring to be a model instead of a profession where their input would respected beyond their looks. Again, i understand that many models are highly educated and strong individuals but those characteristics are irrelevant when the point of their profession is no more than selling things people don’t need and never desired.
    The model industry as well as the adverstising industry are superfluous to humanity’s progress. It’s a job that the world can still get on very well (if not better) without

  19. Eat the Damn Cake » horrible fragility responded on 14 Sep 2012 at 1:01 pm #

    [...] And then, later, I thought, no, I need my legs to be different—longer, leaner, more coltish. Coltish because we women are always basing our beauty on very young things. [...]

  20. Girl Model: Scouted responded on 14 Sep 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    [...] provocative, heart-breaking and beautifully made, and if you don’t believe me, go read this lovely post by Kate on Eat The Damn [...]

  21. Weekly Awesome 9.20 | This Is A Woman responded on 20 Sep 2012 at 5:00 pm #

    [...] I pinned at mt TIAW and Wisdom boards. ~This post at Eat the Damn Cake (I think Bethany shared this one with me?) is so well written that I can’t pick just one [...]

  22. Carrie responded on 28 Mar 2013 at 8:57 pm #

    Such a good post! I love this line: “But this isn’t beauty, it’s marketing. It’s money.” And while the situation with the girls is disturbing, this is happening all the time, whether it be the prostitution of naked bodies, of abilities, of labor. it’s always about money, nothing else, and no one is trying to intentionally degrade these girls…it just happens in the process.

  23. Eat the Damn Cake » this is not a first world problem responded on 24 Apr 2013 at 5:26 pm #

    [...] ones in their lives. Pressure surrounding beauty is not limited by class and race. Actually, as the documentary “Girl Model” points out so disturbingly, being beautiful can represent the only way out of a life of poverty [...]

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply