Former child model Jennifer Sky now advocates for the protection of young women in the fashion industry. Photo: Supplied.
With messages about the importance of outer beauty constantly shoved in the faces of young girls, it’s no surprise that many look up to the women gracing the covers of glossy magazines and Times Square billboards. Models have always had a large impact on the often unrealistic standard of beauty that many young women want to achieve. While such aspirations can have detrimental effects on a girls’ self-esteem, these can worsen further on stepping into the fashion and modeling world.
Former child model Jennifer Sky has experienced firsthand the kind of psychological and emotional damage that can be inflicted on a young girl, who many people would assume is “living the dream.” At the tender age of 15, she was presented with the opportunity to leave her small home town in Florida and spend two months as a professional model in Japan.
“My parents were concerned, but my agent was very insistent that I would be chaperoned and taken care of,” she says. “The way the parents felt comfortable sending my sister to summer camp, they felt the same way about my agent. But I was basically dropped off in a city with a different language, and food I’d never ate. They just dropped me off, let me go, and demanded that I be professional as a child. But they did not treat me with the same professionalism.”
During her time in Japan, Sky shared a one-bedroom apartment with another girl, was not shown how to get to the nearest grocery store, laundromat, bank or police station. She wasn’t taught how to make an international call home. And, after her contract was up, she moved to Miami to work as a full-time model—a normal childhood was no longer within her reach.
“A lot of stuff that happened that summer had a huge impression on me,” Sky says. “I could no longer relate to traditional teenagehood, or the American childhood of going to school. I had to advance so quickly and there was no going back. I was just a child business person, and that is the incredibly bizarre disconnect.”
Writing in the New York Times in September 2013, Sky talks about the different forms of abuse she suffered during her career, like standing in a freezing pool in Italy for a bathing suit shoot while the photographer screamed at her for turning a shade of blue. In Mexico, she was given drugs and coerced into going topless for a shoot. She got out of modeling when she was 17, at the peak of her career, after landing her first international magazine cover.
“I realized there was a change in personality,” Sky says. “I was scared all the time. I was living in an atmosphere of fear. My job had made me feel like I had to isolate myself. I was afraid of all these weird things. I was like ‘This isn’t me.’ So I had to leave.”
Sky moved home, and eventually became an actress who played powerful roles like Cleopatra, and Amarice in “Xena: Warrior Princess.” When she made her way back to New York a decade later, she was stunned to find that nothing in her former world as a child model had changed in that time. Despite major steps toward greater equality and women’s rights, children employed in the fashion industry were still being treated poorly.
“Twenty-five years later, even with all this new technology, the fashion industry still treated their child workers in a really terrible way,” Sky says. “Fashion is starting to listen, but it’s just so arrogant in its position of power. They just didn’t care. They really view models, which are a lot of the time little girls, just as a living mannequin, a clothes hanger. They don’t see the child there.”
Sky says that despite how much she wanted to forget her past abuse, she started to pay attention to what was happening in the fashion world. She saw little girls being dressed up to look like women to sell clothes, just as she was years earlier.
“There are huge amounts of crime happening to kids in the fashion industry. Being photographed nude is the most dangerous and it happens a lot, or [being] clothed in some kind of sexually suggestive position. That’s really endangering that child’s right and mental health. It hurts their identity of safety and the adults they are going to become,” Sky says
“Parents are not sure what’s happening in the industry, and how to protect their kids, but they are not there. Even with chaperone on set people are not regulating. People in the fashion industry tell parents ‘We’re gonna take her over here for an hour, and you just stay here and have lunch.’ Then they somehow convince your kid to take her top off. Nobody gets arrested.”
The imagery scattered throughout society (in magazines, TV ads and billboards), Sky says, is often barely legal child pornography. The legitimate porn industry has to verify and prove that every girl in their magazine or video is over 18 years old, and Sky wonders why fashion magazines shouldn’t have to do the same.
“Children should be allowed to model clothes for children,” Sky says. “There is no reason we should be dressing up a little girl in a $25,000 Chanel suit and selling it to a 40-year-old business woman. She shouldn’t want to buy that product. What we’re really selling out is the lives and childhood of these little girls. Childhood should be protected.”
Her experience with abuse in child modeling has driven her to campaign for more legal protections for children in the fashion industry. In 2014, she posted a video describing her own experiences and asking people to come together to help protect children’s rights. Since then, there has been some talk about new legislation, but she says she hasn’t seen much in the way of real change.
“I go out all the time to the modeling industry, and the regulation is nowhere to be found,” she says. “We need to go to the federal level to create these protections. This should be a no-brainer for everyone. These kids are your teenaged sisters, nieces and daughters. I mean, they start scouting girls when they’re 12.”
Sky says it’s so easy for girls to get caught up in the supposed glamour and glitz that comes with being a fashion model, that even kidnappings can occur.
“All these little girls want to grow up to be models,” she says. “They go on sites like Model Mayhem, meet guys that say they want to take their picture, and never come back. It happens in America all the time and barely anybody is talking about it.”
Part of the reason the issue is so overlooked, Sky says, is because of money and the fact that many people consider child models to be privileged. The smoke and mirrors around children in the fashion industry has become such a fetish in society that people are turning a blind eye to a standard that needs to be stopped.
“It’s sexism,” she says. “It’s like ‘These girls should be lucky because they are uneducated and they got these jobs. What else would they do? They’d end up as sex workers.’ This is the argument I hear all the time. It’s repulsive that people would even say that about a child.”
Sky says she still keeps up with some of her friends who stayed in the business, and is sad to report that it doesn’t get any better with age. Models who are 22 and 23 years old are made to feel like they’ve peaked, and their bodies are manipulated into looking younger.
“They are made to feel lesser than because they aged,” she says. “My close friend is in her late 20s, and is a successful model. It’s very hard for her to mentally deal with the way the fashion industry subtly shames her for being older and rewards her for looking younger. She went through a bad breakup, and they said ‘Wow you lost weight.’ She told them ‘I’m clinically depressed,’ and and they were like ‘Great keep doing that.’ This is the sickest atmosphere in the universe.”
Despite being able to get out of the modeling world when she was 17, Sky still feels the lasting impacts and now suffers post traumatic stress disorder.
“With mine, it’s not the things what people who have had hardcore traumatic flashbacks or living nightmares,” she says. “I don’t have that. I just tend to get more anxiety. But I’m less anxious now because I’ve empowered myself with research and understanding and awareness. When I get triggers, and a lot of the work I do is a trigger, I hang out or meditate to reset myself and get my mind off of it.”
She hopes the stories she’s telling and the current work she’s doing with young models will help to protect children from having to deal with PTSD. That can’t happen, however, until the illusion of fame and fortune is wiped away and industry insider are held accountable for the crimes they’ve committed.