Fashion has a new muse, and she is 10 years old. Meet Thylane Loubry Blondeau.
The child model's parents are Patrick Blondeau, a former soccer player, and Véronika Loubry, who used to present a celebrity news show on French television and now designs a mother-daughter clothing line. Thylane has graced the cover of Vogue Enfants, starred in ad campaigns for the children's lines of major brands, and regularly works with top fashion photographers including Dani Brubaker. She started early: in October, 2005, at the age of 4, Thylane walked in Jean-Paul Gaultier's spring show. She came to my attention earlier this year, when she was one of the models featured in a Vogue Paris — that's regular, grown-up Vogue, not kiddie Vogue — editorial that took fashion's fetishistic, often exploitative relationship with extreme youth as its subject. Now there's a "Fuck Yeah" Tumblr devoted to her every move. [UPDATE: The blogger behind the Tumblr has now changed the name to "Thylane Blondeau Pictures."]
I personally found the Vogue Paris editorial refreshing. Sure, it was disturbing, but it seemed purposefully, knowingly disturbing — disturbing in the sense that it aimed to perturb and provoke a reader to question the fashion industry's treatment of young girls as a kind of natural resource to be transformed into product, which is, you know, itself disturbing. It was published in the knowledge that outrage would follow, and, like clockwork, outrage swiftly came.
Models only three or four years (and one middle-school growth spurt) older than Thylane grace international runways, glossy magazine covers, and ad campaigns for luxury brands regularly. Only they are not styled as children, which Thylane and the other child models so obviously were in this spread, with their too-big shoes and their white, little-kid cotton undershirts peeking out from too-big designer outfits, made up to look like they'd gone a little nuts with mum's rouge. No, children just a few years older than Thylane are styled and made up to look like the adults they can pass for — thanks to age-exceptional height — all for the purposes of selling clothes and accessories. No outrage — a total, complete lack of anything that might be called "outrage" — ever greets the publication of their work. That's why, to me, so much of the criticism of that particular Vogue Paris spread rang hollow.
But while I didn't find that single spread necessarily inappropriate, the body of Thylane's work — and fashion's apparent fascination with her — gives me pause. Is it really necessary to depict a 10-year-old hooking her thumb into her jeans and slinging her hip out? Is it really a good idea to intentionally recall, as one writer put it, a Diesel ad? If looking at some of her many, many fashion photographs makes me feel creepy, is it because of the way the magazines and photographers have chosen to present her, or is it because of something I'm reading into the images?
Even posing questions like these about the sexualization of children is discomfiting. To ask is this child too sexy is to put a child's body under a kind of scrutiny that is (and should be) strange and unnatural, and that's not a thing that should be taken lightly. But it's one thing for a parent to take a photo of his or her little girl while she's running around a beach in a pair of swimsuit bottoms. It's another for a fashion magazine to take a photo of a 10-year-old sitting topless on a bed and publish it for a global audience. (Link not exactly SFW.) What steps are being taken to ensure Thylane is comfortable with these images? Is she aware that, to people older and more familiar with the commonplaces of fashion photography than she is, the way she is being portrayed reads as somewhat adult, somewhat sexualized? Is a 10-year-old truly capable of consenting to being shot in the nude — by a fashion industry client that is using her body to move product, no less? Is a 10-year-old capable of understanding the ramifications of that consent?
It's complicated. Cultural conservatives and politicians tried to censor Robert Mapplethorpe's images of nude children, but it always seemed to me that you'd have to be kind of sick to see a picture of a naked little boy spontaneously climbing on an armchair as something sexual. (And the children themselves, once they were grown up, strenuously defended the artist.) This isn't Mapplethorpe, though, and fashion editorials aren't art; they're the pictures that go between the luxury ads. I see no reason to trust that the fashion industry's intentions are honorable.
Especially when fashion's overall relationship with age is, to put it bluntly, fucked up. Models commonly start working internationally at age 13-14, and the pace of the work makes it difficult to do things like finish high school. (Models are independent contractors, and are thus exempt from many provisions of labor law, including minimum wage and age requirements, as well as legal protection from sexual harassment.) Fashion loves to infantilize grown women and portray girls as though they were adults. A fashion shoot isn't necessarily, categorically an inappropriate place for a 10-year-old to be — with appropriate supervision. I don't want to argue that, because of her age, Thylane should be limited to posing with bouncy balls or oversized lollipops for French children's catalogs, or whatnot.
It's just that so many of the tropes of fashion photography — the focus on the long limbs, the aestheticization and objectification of these young bodies, the preference for blank expressions and softly opened mouths — are inherently sexualizing. And that's creepy. (It doesn't help things that the writer of the "Fuck Yeah" blog and his or her commenters are all too keen to dismiss any criticism of the nature of these pictures as the product of America's "uptight culture." And to remind us all, "If you're seeing the images in a sexual way, then that is obviously your OWN problem.") As if a fashion photo of a child standing on a bed, wearing no pants, is totally normal and appropriate to her age.
I modeled as a child, beginning around the age of 7 or 8, and I enjoyed it very much. I earned money, which I saved, I got an occasional day off school, I got to be around adults with interesting, creative jobs who made the work we were doing seem fun, I saw some interesting places. Unless you consider the mere fact of a child having "work" inappropriate, I would say that all of my work was very appropriate to my age and my interests. I don't want to condemn another child, and another family, for making the decision to pursue modeling. But something about some of these pictures, on a level almost deeper than language, creeps me out. And for that, I blame fashion, not the child or her parents.
This, for example, is what's known as an "implied nude." I really don't think a 10-year-old should be shot for one.
'Sexy' Images Of 10-Year-Old Girl/Model Thylane Blondeau Go Too Far [The Gloss]
Fuck Yeah Thylane Blondeau [Official Site]