As Jezebel has pointed out, the offending photos probably owe more to a parody of the fashion industry than any actual attempt to market clothing to women. Magazines such as Vogue exist because of the advertising of fashion houses that is designed to appeal to women readers. Most women would not be enticed to buy dresses and heels after viewing them draped around a child. And Thylane, despite the lipstick, is very much a child. The low-cut gold lame top she wears in one photograph is cut down to her navel and reveals her flat chest. That we have not seen other examples as extreme in terms of the girl’s age and sophistication of her dress suggests that there is no broader trend to use pre-teen girls to market clothing to women.
Lauren Rosewarne, a fellow University of Melbourne lecturer, wrote on ABC’s The Drum about the Thylane debate. (I’ve just realised Thylane would be a great name for a patent medicine.) In part, I agree with her perspective that part of what makes us uncomfortable about the Vogue images of Thylane is that they remind us that children do possess a sexuality. Nevertheless, I would make some distinctions from Rosewarne’s dismissal of opponents of these photographs as “twin-set, crucifix-wearing mothers”. She writes:
“The girl is 10. Ten years old today means something substantially different than it did when the Mothers Union folk were making daisy chains and singing What a Friend We Have in Jesus in their youth.
Like it or not, Blondeau is either menstruating or will start pretty soon. With puberty comes all those things we're culturally so reluctant to think about, let alone talk about: arousal and sexual activity and condom vending machines in schools.”
The lives of girls do indeed change over time. Girls might once have been married off as soon as they reached menarche, and, indeed, they still are in some parts of the world. The culturally accepted view in the West, however, is that pre-teen girls still occupy some form of childhood, rather than adolescence. Debates about the sexualisation of childhood do not tend to centre on adolescents, who we accept will begin to experiment sexually. One prominent view of the history of childhood, espoused by Phillipe Aries, is that children were once seen as miniature adults and that the kinds of beliefs we have about childhood as a separate stage did not come into being until the seventeenth century. While the construction of childhood as a place of ‘innocence’ and freedom from work and adult concerns is a cultural creation, I don’t believe it has yet been dismantled by the superficial differences of the 'information age'.
I am not sure why a desire to shield girls from a consumer culture that is infused with sex need be equated with some kind of Christian naivete, as Rosewarne seems to do. I am an atheist (who admittedly did make the odd daisy chain in the playground) and I am not under any pretensions about the fact that many children masturbate, but I am still opposed to the use of girls to advertise products in a way that sexualises them. A girl getting a crush on a boy is not the same as adults posing the girl topless, pouting into a mirror. Similarly, puberty does not necessarily equate to sexual readiness. Indeed, first menstruation is often dreaded as girls experience the more uncomfortable and painful aspects of the process of sexual maturation without full development or understanding of sexual desire.
Yet I am not under the assumption that Thylane represents an actual transformation in the fashion industry, even though some of her other shoots similarly see her seduce the camera with 'come hither' looks, tousled hair and in poses that would be at home in a Playboy feature. What is prevalent, however, is young teenage girls modelling women’s clothing. Girls between thirteen and fifteen are often the much-vaunted future faces and bodies that women should learn to admire. Of course, it is impossible for a woman to maintain her teen figure, and especially to retain an unlined and unmarked face. While one in a million women might look like Claudia Schiffer, not one adult woman can look like a fourteen-year-old girl. We can argue, perhaps, who would want to? But if it is possible to worship youth to the point where a young teen girl is the ideal then women will never be satisfied with their appearance. It truly is an impossible goal. Even endless surgery cannot bring back youth, where it may be able to recreate a simulation of beautiful woman’s face.
As Zygmunt Bauman describes in 'Consumers in Liquid Modern Society', consumerism is not about satisfying desires for goods, but arousing desire for more and more desires. The most preferable desires of all to awake in the consumer is one that cannot be fulfilled. For instance, he mentions the concept of 'fitness', whereby you can achieve ‘health’ but you could always be ‘fitter’ than you are currently, leaving your desires perpetually unsatisfied. Marketing young teenagers as the ultimate examples of what is attractive about women similarly create a desire that can never be satiated, fuelling an endless quest for beauty and fashion in a fruitless attempt at satisfaction. In addition to avoiding the sexualisation of young girls in advertising, we should also be thinking about the well-being of women. While we can tell that ten-year-old Thylane sprawled on a tiger’s skin is wrong, albeit an isolated example, the cult of girl as ideal woman remains normalised and prolific.