Bodies and age and modeling

There has been much to-do, over the past several months, about “plus-sized models.”  All of this conversation is, of course, moving media images in the right direction.  But it is using language that is damaging.

First, some history:

0814-lizzie-miller_vgThe bulk of this conversation started back in September when Glamour magazine put a photo of a woman with a little, un-touched-up tummy pouch on page 194 (see the original picture over there on the left).

Glamour received such an overwhelming number of letters, e-mails, and comments from readers who deeply appreciated this one picture, that they decided to do a whole spread of what they called “Plus Sized Models” in October.

I wrote my objections to this general trend of calling these beautiful women “plus-sized” on my other blog, The Belly Project.  I was upset and candid in what I wrote, and while I might not be quite as hyperbolic today, I’m still happy to re-state some of what I said back in October:

“So don’t get all high-and-mighty on me Glamour, for suddenly portraying your magazine as breaking the societal standards of beauty that have gripped American women for decades.  This is a stunningly beautiful picture, and I love just looking at these amazing bodies.  But when they amazing-ness of them is qualified – repeatedly – by the words plus, larger, and big, and when the women are described as having confidence “despite” their bodies, I throw-up a little bit in my mouth.

If this is really a conversation that Glamour wants to have, as it claims, here is my opening statement: This is not progress, this is continuing the bullshit while attempting to gain eyeballs and advertisers by claiming progress.  Show me some real progress, and I’ll subscribe to your magazine.  I’ll be your biggest fan and call your name from the rooftops.  But first you have to get real, down here in the trenches, with all the normal people.”

While Glamour has not continued the conversation – with me, at least – other media outlets are taking up the conversation.  Models and body size has risen in the general awareness because – as I’m sure you all know – this is Fashion Week.  In a nutshell, Fashion Week means that high fashion designers put their new designs on models who walk up and down runways.  While there are often a story or two about how skinny models are floating ar0und this time of the year, the current stories are focusing on the plus-sized model phenomenon, since it was already somewhat in the public eye.

NPR ran a story earlier this week about this very thing.  The story was relatively short, and made some good points like this one:

” ‘There is a real disconnect between what the fashion industry considers to be a plus-size model and what the average person considers to be plus size,’ Givhan said, adding that a woman going into a department store won’t be sized out of the most fashionable clothes until she reaches size 16.

And this one:

“But I think what we have to figure out is: how do we celebrate good health without stigmatizing people who are on either end of the spectrum and are still trying to work their way towards middle ground, which is good health?”

But out of nowhere, and unquestioned, comes this statement:

“The fashion industry on one end is showing us these 14 and 15 year old, very thin girls and portraying them as women…”

Wait a minute.  What did you say?  How old are those models again?  Nowhere, in all of my reading about models and body shapes, has there been a clear focus on the age of these models and the influence on social, emotional, and sexual development of these young women.  There is one NYTimes article this week that begins to discuss this issue, albeit without much detail.  Interestingly, this article also has “plus-sized models” as its primary focus.  Here’s a quote:

” ‘What happens when these girls develop and turn into women?’ Mr. Scully asked. ‘What’s going to happen to Karlie Kloss,’ he added, referring to the teenager discovered at a charity benefit fashion show in her native St. Louis and now one of the most desirable models in the business, ‘when she develops breasts?’ “

But while the question alludes to age, it maintains the focus on body size.  According to the Tanner stages of breasts development, on average, young women will have fully developed breasts by age 15.  That’s pretty young for a modeling career to start to go downhill.  The Times article ends with this:

“And no lanky 14-year-old should be pressured to starve herself, to cadge prescription drugs like Adderall or to take up smoking as an appetite suppressant.

‘Girls are told they’re not skinny enough, or they hear, ‘She’s old, she’s boring, we’ve had her, she’s not tiny anymore,’ ‘ Ms. Rocha said. ‘A lot of people don’t take into account the vulnerability of these young girls.’ And the latest crop of models is not made up of ‘adults or even sort-of adults,’ she insisted. ‘They are children. Point closed.’ “

Indeed.  But why is the entire story not about this?  Our society fetishizes youth to a degree that I think a lot of people are not even fully aware of.  Did you know that most cat-walk models are in their very early pre-teen years?  The average 13- and 14-year-old girl already has enough body image issues to carry with her through life.  To add on to these the physical stress of maintaining such a low body weight, focusing exclusively on the physical, and perhaps most of all to be flattered and attended to in the way that models are – all before developing a sense of self identity – must have a substantial impact on the young women involved in modeling.  I worry about them.

About Karen Rayne

Dr. Karen Rayne has been supporting parents and families since 2007 when she received her PhD in Educational Psychology. A specialist in child wellbeing, Dr. Rayne has spent much of her career supporting parents, teachers, and other adults who care for children and teenagers.


  1. This is horrible! Actually, I had no idea that models were children.

  2. I think a lot of people are unaware, Ruth! I knew that they were young – but frankly I didn’t realize just quite how young.

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