“Why I wouldn’t hesitate to let my young daughter walk down the runway.”

California-based label Hot-as-Hell has divided the public over its decision to cast child models in runway show to introduce its children’s swimwear line, and re-sparked the debate as to what constitutes the sexualisation of children.

The label, whose collection features swimwear for both women and girls, hired, well, women and girls to model their designs at the industry event. The environmentally and ethically-conscious label described its collection as being inspired by, a celebration of, and created for females of all ages.

As the rise of social media has given the general public a voice, the most consistent request seems to be a call for diversity wherever possible. Working within the already restrictive parameters of sample production, the label cast a range of women outside the conventions of those typically seen in Swim Week’s shows to model their Hot-As-Hell line, and daughters of the brand’s creative director, friends and models, to show their new UV-protective and eco-friendly kids line ‘Hot-As-Halo.’

Not content to hire only 20-something beach babes, HAH sent out models of various ethnicities and ages. The model mothers walked with their daughters, others had visible tattoos, a 52-year-old woman strutted the runway and another was very pregnant.

But as runway images filtered through and the company received mostly positive feedback for the show, praised for being ‘diverse,’ ‘unique’ and ‘fun’, it seems some people are less than impressed to see pre-teen girls on a runway in swimwear — even if it’s in garments designed for them by a company that makes children’s swimwear.

Which begs the question: what is more damaging? Little girls walking in swimsuits? Or impressing upon our daughters our own issues or the idea that if their bodies are visible in public, they are up for debate or invitation of criticism?

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One Instagram user said she would be “sad” to see her nieces on a runway and that HAH was “sexualising children,” while another demanded the children be “given their (sic) childhood and normal life back.” One even likened using girls in runways shows to abuse and suggested the images opened up them up to online predators, as HAH’s Global Sales Director tried to assure commenters that “the girls were not ‘bedazzled’ or made up to look like pageant spectacles or objectified,” adding, “We stand for respect of women of all ages, colours and sizes and are about providing a legacy for our daughters.” 

Just some of the comments on the HAH Instagram page.  

Meanwhile, British tabloid The Sun ran an article on the show with the line, “Would you let your kids do this?”

Well, to answer the question, yes, I would. Because it’s not the fashion industry whose influence I fear may damage my daughter; it’s the uninvited, presumptuous and often terrifying opinions of the general public.  

As a model, mother and feminist who gave birth to a beautiful daughter at 24, working within the fashion industry for 16 years gave me the closest view one can get, not only of its workings, but the relationship between artists and viewers, creators and interpreters.

That is, being female, people think that they are entitled to an opinion on your body and what you choose to do with it.

 

If you choose to present your body in a public arena, you must have forfeited autonomy and any intelligence. I expected throughout my career to receive physical critique (it is, for adult models, a to-be-expected part of the job). What I did not count on were things like being snarked by female journalists for choosing to pose nude in my twenties, on projects and with collaborators of my choosing.

The disbelief that I was capable of having agency and the concept that slut-shaming women half one’s age is an acceptable way to get hits was far more offensive to me than any comment a casting director could make about my looks.

When it comes to images of something as simple as girls my daughter’s age wearing swimsuits being deemed “sexual” it makes me instantly more suspicious of the people doing the deeming then it does those making and showing garments for kids to swim in.

One online commenter who also failed to see the supposed sexualisation taking place in the HAH show said, “I seriously worry more about the people that see this and see anything other than innocence.” A sentiment I one hundred percent agree with and a stance I’ve taken before.

Watch: Meaghan Ramsay on the impacts of poor body image. (Post continues after video.)

When Tom Ford guest-edited the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Paris Vogue, it resulted in international furor. Having an appreciation of Ford’s work, I purchased the issue, which featured a wide-spanning range of imagery including family photos, a passionate elderly couple in their '70s, and a then 10-year old Thylane Blondeau wearing women’s high fashion.

Having no tendency toward viewing children as even remotely sexual objects, I perceived the editorial – which saw Blondeau in gowns, diamonds and exaggeratedly oversized shoes – as a little girl playing dress up in her mother’s wardrobe. It reminded me of playing among my own mother’s clothes as a child; that is, if she had a closet full of couture.

Others, however, were outraged. Deciding the shoot was perverse and provocative, the editorial’s critics surmised that the serious expression on Blondeau’s face was that of attempted sexual allure, and not, say, pride or impersonation of a composed mother figure. That the first thing the average person saw in those images was a child trying to be sexual and not the more innocent alternative was disturbing to me.

Thylane Blondeau Cannes
Thylane Blondeau at age 10. (Image: Vogue Paris)

In my mind, the story was shot to highlight the feeling and experience of being a child, aspiring to emulate your mother — as the theme of family and age ran through the issue — and intended to present the beautiful innocence of that rite-of-passage through a fashion lens (as well as being deliberate and direct contrast to the not-so-innocent shoot featuring septuagenarians).

Essentially, people will see in an image what they want to see, whether it is a child appearing ‘sexy’ or some kind of oppression or place of blame within the industry. I suspect shifting this worry to such a place provides comfort and distraction from from the very real threats that exist far more closely around them. Do I fear for my daughter’s safety? I do, absolutely.

I’m well aware these sexual predators are real; those that seek out, abuse and hurt children. I may obsessively check my locks and windows at night, never let my daughter out of my sight in public and treat everyone I meet with some level of suspicion, but I do not lay the blame on media images or apparel designers.

I don’t believe that images of children expressing typical ‘little girl behaviour’ like dressing up or acting sassy, whether in private or public, invites or encourages it, any more then ‘dressing a certain way’ invites or justifies rape. Those who choose to sexualise children have existed long before the internet, long before the invention of the bikini and long before photography and runways.

To lump all blame on a small part of one industry seems like the easy way to express outrage and concern in the face of an issue that is justifiably scary, instead of tackling it in our personal lives, awarding our children some credit and educating them on the matter one-on-one.

The whole use of this show as an excuse for some to express their grievances regarding the media irks me. The lack of concern for potentially teaching girls that if they dare exist in public, or indulge in any attention-getting behaviour, it warrants a barrage of criticism about them presents a real, everyday risk. Enough problems ranging from low self-esteem to addiction stem from a place of shame.

Claiming to be concerned for these little girls because they are modelling bikinis, while offloading your very adult issues onto them with no consideration for their personal experience, is akin to concern-trolling overweight people on the internet under the guise of 'health'.

 

It is more damaging to tell a girl, acting joyfully, to be cautious of her physicality or to refrain from appearing self-assured in public lest it invite criticism, than it is to allow her to wear a swimsuit on a runway with her mother. In a vein of hypocrisy I see far too often online, you cannot champion self-acceptance and body positivity, then be outraged when it happens in Not Exactly Your Preferred Way.

There are many brilliant things about being a woman.There are many wonderful things about being a girl. Among these positives there will always be the negative aspect of those thinking they can dictate to us what it means to be female or the behavior that may potentially make us either a victim of crime or criticism.

And there always those that will take any opportunity to twist your intentions and impose their personal opinions and perceptions on you, as seems the case with the HAH show. Just like there have been people who think they can tell me how to be a woman, no doubt, there will be people who think it’s their job to tell our daughters how they should, or in this case, should not, be a girl.

It’s OUR job to teach them how to use the voice that will tell them to go to hell.

This post originally appeared on Live FAST and has been republished with full permission.

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