As Miami Swim Week wrapped up earlier this week, California-based label Hot-as-Hell has divided the public over their decision to cast child models in their runway show to introduce their children’s swim, Hot-As-Halo, and re-sparked the debate as to what constitutes the sexualization of children.
The label, whose collection features swimwear for both women and girls, hired, well, women and girls to model their designs at the industry event, the purpose of which is to present upcoming collections to the media and buyers who work for potential stockists. The environmentally and ethically conscious label described it’s collection as being inspired by, a celebration of and created for females of all ages. As the rise of social media has given the general public a voice, the most consistent request of consumers to designers and advertisers seems to be a call for diversity wherever possible. Working within the already restrictive parameters of sample production, the label cast a range of women outside the conventions of those typically seen in Swim Week’s shows to model their Hot-As-Hell’ line and daughters of the brand’s creative director, friends and models, to show their new UV-protective and eco-friendly kids line ‘Hot-As-Halo.’ Not content to hire only twenty-something beach babes, HAH sent out models of various ethnicities and ages, the model mothers walked with their daughters, others had visible tattoos, a 52 year old woman strutted the runway and another was very pregnant.
But as runway images filtered through and the company received mostly positive feedback for the show, praised for being ‘diverse,’ ‘unique’ and ‘fun,’ it seems some people are less than impressed to see pre-teen girls on a runway in swimwear, apparently, even if it’s in garments designed for them by a company that makes children’s swimwear. Which begs the question, what is more damaging? Little girls walking in swimsuits? Or impressing upon or daughters our own issues or the idea that if their bodies are visible in public, they are immediately up for debate or invitation of criticism, irregardless of their personal experience?
One Instagram user said she would be “sad” to see her nieces on a runway and that HAH was “sexualizing children,” while another demanded the children be “given their (sic) childhood and normal life back.” One even likened using girls in runways shows to abuse and suggested the images opened up them up to online predators, as HAH’s Global Sales Director tried to assure commenters that “the girls were not ‘bedazzled’ or made up to look like pageant spectacles or objectified.” Adding, “We stand for respect of women of all ages, colors and sizes and are about providing a legacy for our daughters.” Meanwhile, British tabloid The Sun ran an article on the show with the line, “Would you let your kids do this?” Well, to answer the question, yes, I would. Because it’s not the fashion industry whose influence I fear may damage my daughter, it’s the uninvited, presumptuous and often terrifying opinions of individuals in the general public.
As a model, mother and feminist who gave birth to a beautiful daughter at 24, working within the fashion industry for 16 years gave me the closest view one can get, not only of its workings, but the relationship between artists and viewers, creators and interpreters, as well as a pretty clear idea of the conflicting expectations of what it means to be a woman or ‘respected’ in society. That is, being female, people more often than not think that they are entitled to an opinion on your body and what you choose to do with it. If you choose to present your body in a public arena, you must have forfeited autonomy and any intelligence. I expected throughout my career to receive physical critique (it is, for adult models, a to-be-expected part of the job). What I did not count on, were things like being snarked by female journalists for choosing to pose nude in my twenties, on projects and with collaborators of my choosing. The disbelief that I was capable of having agency and the concept that slut-shaming women half one’s age is an acceptable way to get hits, was far more offensive to me than any comment a casting director could make about my looks.
Another key thing I learned very early is the well-known fact, evident across all areas of design and art, that how a viewer or audience perceives that art often says more about that viewer or audience than it does the artist or the subject itself. So when it comes to images of something as simple as girls my daughter’s age wearing swimsuits being deemed “sexual” it makes me instantly more suspicious of the people doing the deeming then it does those making and showing garments for kids to swim in. One online commenter who also failed to see the supposed sexualization taking place in the HAH show said, “I seriously worry more about the people that see this and see anything other than innocence.” A sentiment I 100% agree with and a stance I’ve taken before.
When Tom Ford guest-edited the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Paris Vogue, it resulted in international furor. Having an appreciation of Ford’s work, I purchased the issue, which featured a wide-spanning range of imagery including family photos, a passionate elderly couple in their 70’s and a then ten-year old Thylane Blondeau wearing women’s high fashion. Having no tendency toward viewing children as even remotely sexual objects, I perceived the editorial – which saw Blondeau in gowns, diamonds and exaggeratedly oversized shoes – as a little girl playing dress up in her mother’s wardrobe. It reminded me of playing amongst my own Mother’s clothes as child, that is, if she had a closet full of couture. Others, however, were outraged. Deciding the shoot was perverse and provocative, the editorial’s critics surmised that the serious expression on Blondeau’s face was that of attempted sexual allure, and not, say, pride or impersonation of a composed mother figure. That the first thing the average person saw in those images was a child trying to be sexual and not the more innocent alternative I garnered as an individual and in the context of the issue as a whole, was disturbing to me. In my mind, the story was shot to highlight the feeling and experience of being a child, aspiring to emulate your mother, as the theme of family and age ran through issue, and intended to present the beautiful innocence of that rite-of-passage through a fashion lens (as well as being deliberate and direct contrast to the not-so-innocent shoot featuring septuagenarians).
Essentially, people will see in an image what they want to see, whether it is a child appearing ‘sexy’ or some kind oppression or place of blame within the industry. I suspect shifting this worry to such a place provides comfort and distraction from from the very real threats that exist far more closely around them, as research shows, the majority of incidences of child abuse are perpetrated by a family member or friend of the victim. Do I fear for my daughter’s safety? I do, absolutely. I’m well aware these sexual predators are real- those that seek out, abuse and hurt children. I may obsessively check my locks and windows at night, never let my daughter out of my sight in public and treat everyone I meet with some level of suspicion, but I do not lay the blame on media images or apparel designers. I don’t believe that images of children expressing typical ‘little girl behavior’ like dressing up or acting sassy, whether in private or public, invites or encourages it, any more then ‘dressing a certain way’ invites or justifies rape. Those who choose to sexualize children have existed long before the internet, long before the invention of the bikini and long before photography and runways. To lump all blame on a small part of one industry seems like the easy way to express outrage and concern in the face of an issue that is justifiably scary, instead of tackling it in our personal lives, awarding our children some credit and educating them on the matter one-on-one.
Additionally, as is the case with the critics of HAH’s show, I wonder why the people who claim to be so concerned about these children’s images being ‘inappropriate’ are not concerned about the effect of criticizing them or their parents. Or turning what was potentially a positive experience for them into a vehicle for them to off-load their personal issues. A mother of one of the girls featured on the HAH runway commented in response to the online criticism that she was grateful to the label “for letting this opportunity boost a once-shy girl’s self-esteem.” The whole use of this show as an excuse for some to express their grievances regarding the media irks me, the lack of concern for potentially teaching girls that if they dare exist in public or indulge in any attention-getting behavior it warrants a barrage of criticism about them presents a real, everyday risk. Enough problems ranging from low self-esteem to addiction stem from a place of shame. Claiming to be concerned for these little girls because they are modeling bikinis, whilst off-loading your very adult issues onto them with no consideration for their personal experience, is akin to concern-trolling overweight people on the internet under the guise of health.
It is more damaging to tell a girl, acting joyfully, to be cautious of her physicality, to refrain from appearing self-assured in public lest it invite criticism, than it is to allow her to wear a swimsuit on a runway with her mother. In a vein of hypocrisy I see far too often online, you cannot champion self-acceptance and body positivity, than be outraged when it happens in Not Exactly Your Preferred Way.
There are many brilliant things about being a woman.There are many wonderful things about being a girl. Amongst these positives there will always be the negative aspect of those thinking they can dictate to us what it means to be female or the behavior that may potentially make us either a victim of crime or criticism. And there always those that will take any opportunity to twist your intentions and impose their personal opinions and perceptions on you, as seems the case with the HAH show. Just like there have been people who think they can tell me how to be a woman, no doubt, there will be people who think it’s their job to tell our daughters how they should, or in this case, should not, be a girl. It’s OUR job to teach them how to use the voice that will tell them to go to hell.