“I’ll know it When I See It”: The Line between High End Fashion and Child Exploitation

As you stand in line at the grocery store, cart laden with groceries, you pause and grab one of the many magazines decorating the checkout line. As you flip through the glossy pages, you may see ads or articles, maps, and photos, but what catches your eye are the beautiful people posed in provocative, angular, artfully crafted poses. They are adorned with strange outfits, bursts of color, and smeared makeup. As you flip though, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but then you stop. One of the images is of a girl laying on her stomach, draped across a fur rug with her hair piled high, long mascara covered lashes and wearing sharp, stiletto heels. There is something wrong about the photo, even though she is fully clothed, something that makes you uncomfortable, because the girl in the photo is no more than 10 years old.

The fashion industry, due to its massive influence and industry, has come under fire recently for displaying impossible and at times unhealthy beauty standards. While this problem does heavily and negatively affect individuals, what happens when instead of women draped in fur and pearls, it is young, even pre-pubescent girls? While child modeling in nothing new, in such instances as child clothing and brand stores, the use of children in high end fashion magazines whose target audiences are not children and parents, raises the question of how ethical, and even how legal it is, to put children on display in such a sexualized manner. No doubt, on some level, such images are meant to shock and provoke. The fashion community, and to the same extent the art world in general, often attempts to push the boundaries of socially accepted norms and ideals. Fur coats, public nudity, and potentially offensive campaigns are the norm. However, often there is a motive behind such actions that extends beyond simple capitalistic profit. Whether that be a call for social change or an attempt to wake people up to the world around them, one likes to think of art as being more than selling a painting. In the case of high end fashion magazines, however, the primary driver of using young children to display fashion is to sell the magazine and everything it advertises. These photos are not an ironic statement on the lost innocence of youth, if anything they are an example of it. While there is no doubt that art and fashion are meant to push boundaries, make people feel uncomfortable and think, the question still needs to be asked, at what point does art cross the line from acceptable to taboo?

At first glance, seeing them in established and famous magazines, one would not mistake these young models as being anything but. It is not child pornography, right? I mean, they are fully clothed (mostly), and their parents probably Okayed it, and the photos just look so professional. I mean, they’re in Vogue for Christ’s sake. However, as Justice Potter Stewart once remarked regarding obscenity and pornography, “I’ll know it when I see it,” and standing in line flipping through those pages, maybe you feel like you just have.

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