Too young to be a supermodel?

Forget the scary-skinny debate -- the new question is whether it's appropriate for girls to strut at all.

Published August 15, 2007 1:45PM (EDT)

Here come waves from yet another overseas upset over the fashion industry. But this time, officials are concerned that models are underage rather than underweight. Last month, days after the release of an interim report by the British Fashion Council's Model Health Inquiry -- which said it was "profoundly inappropriate that girls under 16 ... should be portrayed as adult women" -- 15-year-old Claire Quirk was dropped as "the face" of Australia's Melbourne Spring Fashion Week and replaced with an 18-year-old. What's more, Helen Coonan, Australia's federal minister for communications, approved "an inquiry into the sexual exploitation of children in advertising and the media," reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

Australian Sen. Lyn Allison, who argued for the council inquiry, said, "We're pushing children into being sexual beings much younger than they are ready." She continued, "We're talking about children at the age of nine worrying whether they look sexy or not, and bras being targeted at four- to six-year-olds." Another proponent of the inquiry, Amanda Gordon, president of the Australian Psychological Society, said, "Children are being persuaded about the importance of being sexy before they even have the attributes that would make them sexy."

It's hard to know whether this is just a whole lot of noise (after all, Quirk will still strut down the runway, she just won't be the event's public face) or Australia will follow in Spain's footsteps and institute official model guidelines. But there are at least two different things at issue here: the exploitation of young models and "sexy" being sold to adolescent girls. Instituting an age limit for high-fashion and runway models could be a needed step toward reducing the (in the words of the Model Health Inquiry panel) "sexual exploitation of children in requiring them to represent adult women." But it would have little effect on the actual content of advertising targeting young girls, which seems the focus of the debate down under.

There's even buzz, as the Herald article alludes to, of some kind of ban on age-inappropriate images of young models. Maybe I'm being a defeatist, but enforcing a ban on advertisements that feature tarted-up young models or target a young audience with a sexualized image seems impossible. This is in part because both seem pretty ubiquitous. And who exactly would be the arbiter of age-appropriate advertising? I prefer the idea, however imperfect, of leaving most of that type of policing to consumers.

It will be interesting to see what comes of Australia's inquiry, which launches in October. But, for now, I'll leave you with this skin-crawling maxim from Carmen Dye, the mother of a 15-year-old Aussie model: "Age is irrelevant if you're beautiful."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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