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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Child models - should we be concerned?

There is much controversy these days about the 9 year old Russian girl who has become a modelling sensation. Kristina Pimenova is cute and adorable in a way that makes it obvious why the fashion world wants to take hold of her. She only models children's clothes although the images have a sexualized tone to them by portraying her in ways that are not typical of a 9 year old.

On the one hand, it is quite possible to defend that the selling of children's clothes in our highly materialistic world should be done in a way that draws attention. Defenders might state that she has been kept at 9 years old in her imagery and clothing, although the imagery issue might be open for debate. Yet, there can be little doubt from the pictures that this is a little girl.

There are many stories of childhood actors and stars as well as childhood models from the past. Perhaps it might be suggested that this child is being presented tastefully and in a much better way than has been done with others.  But this child is also the daughter of a big name retired Russian soccer star and a successful Russian model. This child is also being taken abroad for fashion work.

Her Facebook page is full of imagery that makes it clear again - this is a little girl. Perhaps it is the power of being the daughter of people who know how to manage image that has kept the child about her.

A year ago, we were reminded that childhood models are not always so protected. The State of New York passed legislation to protect child models who have been denied basic protections.

Despite the fact that most models begin their career around the age of 13, often sacrificing their education, health and financial security to pursue a career in an unregulated industry, Diane Savino acknowledged that 'model rights have long been trivialized and dismissed.''By making this legislation the law in New York, we have brought an end to the rampant exploitation and sexual abuse of child models by giving child models the critical protections they’ve been denied for too long.'

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However, my involvement in child protection sees this as not only a human rights issue that children be protected from exploitation, but also that we recognize how much this steals childhood away from these models. We need to be concerned why this is occurring. How much of this is really about the parents trying to re-live their own lost hopes (we see this in more than modelling - think hockey, football, soccer, music and so on).

What makes this a greater concern is that these images are also attractive to sexual predators. The commercialization of children creates photos that draw this population. While Kristina's parents may well have the savvy to protect their daughter from that, thousands of other parents who want their little girls and boys to be successful in modelling may not have that skill. It is the commercialization of childhood fashion images that can add to the demand.

A 2013 report from the California Child Welfare Council noted

Every day of the year, thousands of America’s children are coerced into performing sex for hire. Some of these children are brutally beaten and raped into submission. Others are literally stolen off the streets, then isolated, drugged, and starved until they become “willing” participants.
Some children are alternately wooed and punished, eventually forming trauma bonds with their exploiters, similar to cases of domestic or intimate partner violence. Still others are living on the streets with no way to survive, except by exchanging sex for food, clothing and shelter. The people who sexually exploit children have built increasingly sophisticated criminal enterprises around the sale of vulnerable young boys and girls. This is a multi-billion dollar commercial industry that preys on children as young as ten, and it is happening to tens of thousands of American children in or near our own neighbourhoods (p.5)
When we turn childhood into a period of commercialization, we tilt the balance away from the innocence of childhood. Kristina's parents should be congratulated for ensuring the images have stayed child like, but should they be there at all? What should the line be like and does commercialization support exploitation? I suggest yes because the more we create the demand, the more we fuel the dreams of desperate parents who want their child to be on the front cover.

If you think I may be taking this too far, consider that Women's Daily gave Kristina the title of the most beautiful girl in the world. But as a CBC story shows, this has become mutated into the most beautiful woman in the world - imagine a 9 year described as a woman!

I hope that there can be a lot of discussion on this important issue because exploitation of children has long term consequences well into adulthood.


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