Ethical Style: Vogue's Ban on Underage, Unhealthy Models Won't Solve Its Image Problem Vogue's Ban on Underage Too-Thin Models

Posted by Jessica De Jesus and Amanda Hess

Vogue underage models
Two years ago, a 10-year-old girl was dressed in a one-shoulder red satin dress, blue eyeshadow painted from lash to brow, diamonds dangling from her earlobes. She was splayed out on the floor beneath a Christmas tree. A wrapped box was positioned between her legs. Someone took pictures. The results were featured in the pages of French Vogue.

Last week, Condé Nast, the publisher of American Vogue and its 18 international editions, promised to stop printing images like that one, along with others that do not "promote a healthy body image." The 19 Vogue editors pledged to "not knowingly work with models under the age of 16" or ones who "appear to have an eating disorder." They will "check IDs." They will encourage "more mature models" to mentor "younger girls." They will mandate "healthy food options" on set. They will "encourage designers" to rethink "unrealistically small sample sizes of their clothing." They call it a commitment to the "health of the models who appear on the pages and the wellbeing of their readers."

Of course, the health of a fashion model and the wellbeing of the girl who pins her photos on the wall of her bedroom are not always perfectly aligned. Condé Nast's pledge fails to distinguish between the real work of a fashion shoot and the fantasy images that result from it. Which model "appears to have an eating disorder"? The one who must actually starve herself to fit into a sample size 0? Or the naturally thin one whose body type—replicated over and over and over again in Vogue's advertisements, runway coverage, and editorials—is nevertheless dangerous to the young women who will starve themselves to get as small as she is? Vogue doesn't say.

Vogue's base-level commitment to the health of its employees—reducing the exploitation of underage labor and providing its employees with real food—should be celebrated. But the magazine's commitment to its readers remains questionable. Remember, this is a magazine that has photoshopped the fingers off of an 8-year-old. French Vogue has painted blackface on white model Lara Stone. The magazine has impregnated and infantilized models—simultaneously.

These representations of women don't predominantly impact the bodies of the models who work for Vogue—Photoshopping the fat off of a model's midsection won't kill her—but they do negatively impact the body image of girls and women everywhere. Yet Vogue's new rules don't mention Photoshop at all; apparently, images of physically impossible physiques are fine, as long as they were engineered in post-production as opposed to through old-fashioned starvation. 

The same goes for Vogue's decision to ban too-young girls from its pages. Vogue's cover slot has long functioned as a coming-out party for up-and-coming talent—Brooke Shields debuted in that venue at age 14—and the magazine has the power to disrupt the whole industry's race to the crib. But the Vogue rules don't prevent the magazine from hiring a 20-year-old model and making her look like she's a naked 10-year-old. And the magazine can always just send its favorite underage models over to Teen Vogue—kiddie Vogue is conspicuously absent from the pledge—where Condé Nast is free to translate the fashion industry's product to an audience of younger and younger girls.

Teen Vogue does feature very young models dressed in your standard-issue sexy fare (leather mini skirt, red stilettos). Its pages are sponsored by ads for H&M bikinis, which feature a woman throwing her head back and thrusting the expected body parts toward the viewer. (The ads that claim a sizable chunk of Vogue's real estate aren't covered by the pledge, either). But Teen Vogue does shy away from its parent magazines' most offensive editorial fare—rail-thin women dressed like pregnant infants; blackface. The implication of exempting Teen Vogue from the health pledge? The problem is not 14-year-olds working as fashion models—the problem is in the way the fashion industry positions these girls for the eyes of the world.

It's easy for Vogue to check every model's ID. It's a lot more difficult to start checking the egos of the magazine's own photographers and art directors and editors and salespeople, who are too invested in presenting models of every age as sexualized, infantilized, and unhealthily thin to question their own contribution to the problem.