The Production of Hypersexualized Images

Latest blog post by Rachel Blais (@rachelblais1 ). For the french version click here to read on the RQASF website.

“States Parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. For these purposes, States Parties shall in particular take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent: The exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials.” – United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 34 (c)

The United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child defines children as all people under 18 years of age.

If famous and respected celebrities pose on magazine covers in a sexualized manner, can we expect an underage model to say she is not comfortable posing in this way? We can also better understand this phenomenon: young girls publish pictures of themselves (e.g. on social networks like Facebook), publicly imitating the hypersexualized images with which many celebrities and models are depicted, and which they implicitly and tacitly endorse.


Most people don’t know what goes on at fashion photoshoots, where hypersexualised images are created and captured. It is important to acknowledge what has become normalized: that is, many models find it very common to be photographed in their underwear or with very transparent clothing because from a very young age they have been encouraged to do so, and these days models are even pressured into this. I say ‘these days’ because 10 years ago fashion models were not expected to shoot in any manner other than fully clothed.

This has drastically changed over the past several years and it is now plain to see in magazines, on billboards, and, of course, the internet. This might not be obvious to all consumers, but it has become evident to many parents, and experts agree on the negative consequences these images have on everyone. For models, too, this has become evident in the stories exchanged amongst ourselves. Girls have told me of agents being angry at them for refusing to pose in swimwear or topless. Throughout my career I have always felt more protected than many of the girls I was surrounded by. But this kind of pressure was nothing like as prevalent in the first part of the last decade. Another factor that perpetuates the hypersexualisation is the setting of a precedent, whether or not the model desires it. Once a girl has taken a picture topless, even if she was forced or uncomfortable, agents and clients take it for granted that she will always be willing to portray this kind of image.

My earliest memory of a photographer’s strange request was at 17 years old in Milan. I was too young at the time to understand the sexual connotation of his request, but I do remember a moment of awareness and sensing something odd about the way the photographer told me to pose.  “Place your hand near your mouth as if it were a kitten’s paw, and pretend you were about to clean it.” These words are far from the worst or most explicit I’ve heard directed at me, and I know not only of sexual language but also of disturbing experiences that many girls have suffered. All models have good and bad stories about the industry.  But for the luckiest of us, we all gather that we lived on a dangerous edge and have simply been more fortunate than others.

Girls who manage to stand up for themselves need to be strong, but also quick-witted and canny. It is not easy to avoid explicit and demeaning images, given the subtle pressures which do not respect the model’s right to choose. An agent might say, “You’re okay with doing topless, right?” A client might say, “And now you can take your shirt off.” These are commonly heard on shoots. Out of context these sentences might seem easy to dismiss, and one could say that anyone should be able to say no to such requests, but it isn’t the case in any way. These statements are often said in manipulative or condescending ways which victimise the model, who is often in a state of shock at the unfair demand that arrogates her dignity and choice. Too often she will execute the request under pressure and the pretense that she is being asked to do nothing unusual or remarkable, but all the while her mind is telling her not to. Or maybe this happens because models know that, if they refuse to do anything on a shoot or if they complain, they will simply stop getting work and they don’t know where to turn to when in need.*

Some top models have spoken out on the problem of shoots and child model nudity over the years, and particularly over the last months with Kate Moss and Heidi Klum. I believe it is wonderful they are sending out warnings since they are seen as role models by many (or even idolized). But I should hope they would also address the issues to agencies and government agencies.

It is disappointing that many members of the fashion industry don’t take into consideration the desire of women to be represented by their peers and not pre-pubescent looking girls. And how do men perceive women in real life when they are surrounded by so many distorted images of women?

“States Parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.” – United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 32.1

*All models in need of help in NYC can turn to The Model Alliance and to Equity in the UK. These organisations are still not promoted to models by their agencies.

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