In January of this year, I was flipping through the French issue of Vogue when I remember coming across a collection of very disturbing photographs of little girl models. Featured in a theme about age, the little girls were depicted in a Vogue-esque reinterpretation of girls playing dress up with make-up and heels — only without the playfulness. The girls were photographed in makeup, heels, clothes, and jewelry befitted for an adult model, with only their little bodies to remind viewers that these were in fact children.
One of the featured children in the spread was Thylane Lena-Rose Blondeau, a 10 year old French girl, who now has quite a few sexy-themed photographs to her portfolio.
What makes these images problematic is not so much the makeup and dresses, as many children like to dress in the clothes of adults in an innocent exercise of imagination and play. These photographs of Thylane are inappropriate because they not only suggest the presence of an adult viewer, inciting “come hither” stares and pouty lips, but they also invite said viewer to regard her as having an adult’s sexuality.
Lipstick and jewelry are not the culprit here, as even in photographs where Thylane is depicted in a mere jeans and t-shirt, a sexual intent and focus is present. Her low gaze and hands to her hips mirror an adult sexuality, and don’t convey anything genuine or authentic about girlhood. Thylane’s mimicking of adult poses and facial expressions is obviously something that she has mastered, but her tiny child’s frame bring these gazes and gestures into dangerously questionable context.
Parents often worry that their daughter’s premature interest in fashion or makeup will garner unwanted attention, and so they seek to steer them away from suggestive clothing and beauty products. While those parenting tactics are valid, Thylane’s photographs show us that hair spray and flat irons alone don’t make a particular depiction of a child inappropriate. Ultimately, the sexualization of children is defined by viewership, perception, intention, and more specifically, the person who is choosing to characterize her that way.