Fashion - and modelling specifically - is a young girl's game. Top model Karlie Kloss recently joked that at nineteen, she's an "old lady" in the industry. With girls commonly starting their careers at a barely pubescent 13 or 14, she's certainly a veteran.
Some children are embraced by fashion well before their adolescent years. Just look to the controversial early career of Brook Shields, who posed nude, in full makeup, for Richard Prince aged 10 (long before her Calvin Klein jeans commercial at age 15, where she uttered the immortal: "You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.")
There's a Brooke Shields for our generation: French enfant Thylane Blondeau, whose body of work includes Tom Ford's guest-edited December 2010 Vogue kiddie spread which caused a furore, as well as a Jean-Paul Gaultier catwalk turn and plenty of highly provocative photo shoots under her tiny belt (there's one image of her wearing a Navajo headdress, topless, with bead necklaces protecting her "modesty").
I find it very difficult to believe that Thylane understands all of the consequences of how she's being portrayed in these shoots. She's often heavily made-up, wearing vampy dresses, stilettos and a professional pout. She thinks she's playing dress-up; someone else sees her image as titillation. Ultimately, it's up to the parents to draw the line somewhere, but if Thylane's mother doesn't object (she's been depicted in the papers as a B-lister who's starred on French reality TV, so naturally she doesn't), who is going to the draw the line?
It's not only Thylane; last month, French lingerie brand Jour Après Lunes released a lingerie collection for girls from the age of four (accompanied by sexy look book photos with children in Brigitte Bardot-inspired bouffants), while the four-year-olds on Toddlers and Tiaras (not the fashion industry per se, but clearly not too far removed from it) are being dressed by their pushy mothers in the Pretty Woman hooker outfit and as Dolly Parton, complete with faux bust.
Where does one draw the line between pretty and pornographic? People look to fashion and copy it (no matter how many critics cry out that it's a world removed from reality). Seeing 10-year-olds dressed as a beloved Nabokov character isn't only bad news for mothers, who need to deal with the ramifications of their own daughters wanting to emulate the girls in mags and on TV, but it's bad news for women everywhere.
This industry makes the rules and we follow them (which is why we're wearing starry prints, capes and PVC this season). What are women over the age of 25 supposed to do when constantly reminded that "sexy" means three things: thin, young enough to look like jailbait and having the ability to pose seductively (pouting, jutting hips and sprawling on furniture all encouraged)?
It's not only the über-young being made up to look older. The way that fashion and the media commodify women (whether intentionally or not), means that "girlishness" is idealised throughout, and I don't just mean wrinkle-free skin. Celebrities are styled for shoots clutching stuffed animals to their half-naked torsos, licking lollipops and giggling at the thrill of it all. Most women that feature on the pages of magazines are there to push luxury products, and the best way to do that is by using sex to appeal to readers. Infantilising women (or making them look old beyond their years), is, apparently, sexy.
If art is a mirror reflecting society, than so is fashion, and we are, as a whole, obsessed with youth to the point where we're caricaturing ourselves. When a 50-year-old celebrity is still trying to look 25, it's clear that no one can escape falling victim to this fallacy that we need youth (or at least the appearance of it) to succeed.
I don't think the fashion industry is entirely to blame for forcing kids to grow up too quickly; I think the industry often depicts a certain kind of beauty at the expense of others, which I find upsetting. I loved the Tom Ford shoot because it pushed boundaries in a clever way, and made fun of the industry's tendencies for caricaturist depictions of women and girls.
But some of the other photos I've seen of Blondeau make me feel ill - how can you take a girl's top off, have her styled in an easily recognisable "Come hither" fashion pose and not expect the connotations to be sexual? Isn't there something wrong with that?
I believe that everyone is inundated with enough mainstream images of fashion nowadays to be aware of what the industry perpetuates. And if you're too young to make the decision to be a part of that industry on your own, hopefully you have responsible parents who won't encourage you to pose topless before you even understand what that might connote.
The truth is, with the world at their fingertips thanks to the Internet, all kids are growing up too quickly. They can find any imagery they want with the tapping of a few keys, and if that fails, can always look to television to provide instant sex appeal for them (music videos are a brilliant lesson in soft-porn stylings for the tween set). Let's face it: kids are growing up much quicker than they did in our day, whether our day was the 40s or the 80s. It's not fashion's fault.
But the fashion industry is easy to point the blame at because alongside the legit agents and photographers there are a lot of exploiting types, who do take advantage of girls hoping to break into the industry. There are also a lot of parents blinded by the glamour and allure of their child becoming the next Christy or Naomi, who don't really think about what they're making their kid do to get there.