How Young is Too Young?
It has been hard to miss all the recent press on age and modelling in the media. Widely reported was, of course, the fairytale of Israeli model Sofia Mechetner who, at age 14, opened the Christian Dior Fall Couture show in a sheer dress. Sofia is of Russian descent but she grew up in Tel-Aviv. After being initially turned away by Parisian agency Viva due to her age, she was discovered by the creative director of Dior, Raf Simons, on a trip to a Dior store in Paris. After Raf had given his seal of approval, Viva reconsidered their decision and signed Sofia straight away. In the next two years, she can expect to earn a staggering £170,000 from her Dior contract – an amount many 14-year-old girls can only dream of.
In the UK and the USA, models under the age of 16 are banned from walking on the catwalks at Fashion Week but this rule (I believe) does not yet apply to France where the Dior show took place. Although Viva took Sofia’s age into consideration at first, as soon as they understood she had the potential to earn a lot of money, ethics were clearly out the window and I don’t doubt that many other agencies who claim to stand up for age restrictions would act any differently. It is a business after all.
In my opinion, the choice to have Sofia expose her nipples through the dress was clearly a media stunt. Dior could have chosen any model in the show wear the sheer garment, yet they chose the youngest girl with full knowledge that this would generate press interest. To me, nipples don’t equal sex, especially in fashion and I don’t believe Dior, Sofia or the industry thinks this way either, I just think Dior is media savvy and knew it would cause an uproar because of the age issue.
To a lot of people, it may seem shocking to hear that girls are working as models at such a young age. Personally, it is not a shock but more of a reality having seen girls of a similar age working in the modelling industry myself. I started travelling internationally as a model aged 18 and I can definitely see the pros and cons of being an ‘older’ model. I am extremely glad I stayed to finish my exams, despite pressure from my agency to travel abroad before they had finished. For a Western model, it may seem like a no brainer to choose education first and modelling later, but for a lot of girls in the industry, education may seem less important and I will explain why.
In certain areas such as Siberia, doctors can only expect to earn £400 a month. There is, however, a huge population of young girls with distinctive features who have the potential to make money as a model in an Asian market and perhaps even in the West too. They are usually tall with very slim builds, long hair and lithe limbs. They also have the faces that can be a blank canvas for any look – this is something that is seen as an advantage in the fashion industry as clients want models to be adaptable. These girls will typically come from a humble background and modelling is their one shot at a better life for themselves and their families.
I watched a documentary yesterday called Extreme Russia: Teen Model Factory about Siberian models. The show was presented by Reggie Yates and, although it was interesting, I was not shocked by anything that I saw. Seeing young girls line up in swimwear and heels at castings is something that all models will have to do repeatedly throughout their careers and the professionals in the fashion industry are not there to leer. Yes, there are of course the Terry Richardson horror stories that the media exposes and as in any industry, there are perverts, but most clients have far more important things on their minds, such as which dress would fit better with your skin tone. Frankly put, you are a product and clients need to see you as a blank canvas in order to see how well you can sell their products. If you aren’t comfortable in a bikini, it will be a real problem when booking jobs as a large majority of your time at castings will be spent in one and confidence is key.
I guess I don’t really see the sexual connotations of bikini castings but I can see how it could shock people, such as Reggie, who have not experienced one before. This is not to say I think a 14 year old posing proactively in a bikini is necessary right, but then again some people view “provocative” differently. Is it a look, a pose, an outfit? As a model, you are responsible for drawing your own lines of what you feel comfortable with. If you feel comfortable with the way you are working and you haven’t felt pressured into it, who’s to comment? It is the fashion industry after all and clients are not there to make porn, they want images that are largely going to appeal to women and not men, sometimes these images will be sexy but there are ways that this can be done where even something as small as a facial expression can totally change the connotations of a picture.
What was interesting about the documentary was seeing how the parents of these girls reacted to them wanting to pursue modelling. I was expecting the mothers especially to be very pushy but they were portrayed as either supportive of their daughters dreams or naturally hesitant about them travelling away from Russia at such a young age. There also seemed to be a lot of coverage on modelling schools where girls as young as 4 train in posing, diet and makeup. Now this is where I do have mixed views. Firstly, how can you tell if your 5 year old could make it as model? Faces and bodies change and enlisting children that young seems equivalent to pageant pushing parents. Also, restricting an infant’s diet or putting makeup on them is just wrong in my eyes. Once a child has developed and decides of their own will that modelling is for them, I think schooling them in the industry before they travel is a great idea. I won’t forget that feeling of arriving at my first casting in Korea and having to pose in a ski suit only to realise I had no clue. Quite amusing if you think about it! I have always been envious of the girls that rock up to a casting, saunter onto set and pose as if it were second nature. After talking with some Russian roommates, I realised that a lot of these girls had attended modelling school. I guess if the shoe fits, right?
The industry is not the easiest of places; you need a thick skin, and training or coaching in the right and healthiest methods should be something available for models before they start their journey. It can be hard if you arrive overseas with little knowledge of how the industry works and what is expected of you. I do think this should be introduced once the girls are 13+ as they will know if modelling is something they actually want and not something their parents are using as a meal ticket. Realistically, in the Asian modelling industry, youthful looks are everything and the market requires young girls to fit the brief so I don’t see age limits being introduced any time soon.
I am glad to see things changing in the West because promoting a teenage body in products aimed at women is not healthy for body image and it also makes us older models lose out on jobs for the simple fact we are not 14 anymore and therefore do not have the same shape as a pre-pubescent girl. I have been told several times by agencies that although my face would fit the Japanese market perfectly, they like ‘VERY skinny’ a.k.a Russian 13 year olds and a far cry from my 21 year old short-legged self. Even in my best shape, I may not be good enough for Tokyo and that’s fine, I have a thick enough skin to accept that could be the case and know that I can still work in other markets in Asia.
The girls I know that have modelled from a young age and the ones that appear on various documentaries I have seen are extremely strong-willed and determined to succeed. At 14, although fiercely independent, I don’t think I would have been mature enough for the industry, plus I was enjoying my life as an average teenage girl. It is a bit of a shame that some models miss out on things such as their education and hanging out with their friends, but making money is a necessity for them and mentally, a lot of them do seem ready. I think it’s really hard to decide when an individual is mentally mature enough for something as everyone is different.
A lot of the views I have expressed are merely explorations. Usually, I will have an opinion one way or the other, but I don’t have a clear judgement on what is right or what is wrong as each young model is a separate case. I do think age restrictions regarding modelling should be applied everywhere mainly based on body image ideals but I accept that they probably won’t. We need to remember that girls modelling at a young age have chosen to do it in order to better their quality of life. It is definitely one issue where I can see both sides of the argument but perhaps these bans on under 16s should be in place for the benefit of the doubt.