Let girls be girls...

... but don't patronise them, says Maureen Freely. If we're uneasy about teenage models, it's because we've forgotten the difference between child exploitation and innocent fun

What is Vivienne Westwood's new collection made of? Tweed jackets, pinafores and taffeta tunics. Every last detail is in the best possible taste. Why are so many people up in arms about her show? Because one of her models was a 13-year-old schoolgirl and many of the others were not much older. At first, no one could figure out why she had felt compelled to rob the cradle for such a demure, mature collection. So, when she went on the Today programme on Radio 4, she explained it was because there was "nothing more sexy" than a girl looking older than her age.

If many of us failed to nod and laugh uproariously, it may have been because of the other 13-year-old girls who made the headlines this week. First, there was the Billie-Jo murder enquiry, then the TV drama about a 13-year-old victim of sex abuse. After living through so many years of paedophile and abuse scandals, it's hard to feel comfortable about children being used as pawns in adult sex games, even if it's only dear old Vivienne Westwood upsetting the natural order of fashion again by parading girls dress like matrons down a catwalk lined by matrons dressed like girls.

Are we perhaps getting just a little too hysterical about all this? Freud and a century of psychology notwithstanding, we seem less able than ever to bear the thought that childhood might not be an age of undiluted innocence. And we are having a harder and harder time telling the difference between the bad guys who prey on children and the good guys who would never dream of it.

One way of gauging how much closer we are now to Victorian ideas than, say, 10 years ago, is to count the things we don't do any more for fear of being taken for child abusers. If you're a man, you are likely to think twice about going over to a sobbing, lost child and offering your help. You'll be reluctant to grab a 13-year-old daughter's hand when crossing a dangerous intersection, and, after the Julia Somerville episode last year, you will balk at the prospect of taking film containing pictures of naked children of any age into Boots. If Pretty Baby came out today, it would most certainly be picketed. If Lolita were published for the first time in 1997, no one would dare call it a classic.

The only time we can utter the "S" word in the company of children now is when we are "educating" them. The central premise of every lecture is that it's good and natural for innocent children to grow into consenting adults, but then when our prediction comes true, we don't know where to look.

Just how are 13-year-olds supposed to look, though? When does adult concern turn into interference? When Marks and Spencer brought out revealing, lacy underwear for girls a few years ago, the adult world made such a fuss that it had to be withdrawn. But why did we afford so little importance to the fact that lots of girls loved the underwear? When we said they didn't know all of the nasty adult implications, were we really acting in their best interests or were we just a little bit jealous of how good they looked? It's true - when you're 13 you take your smooth skin and long legs for granted. You have no idea what complicated feelings they evoke for the decrepit older generation. But, as we sigh for our lost youth, we blot out the other point of view. We forget how important it is to be able to choose your own clothing at that age, after a lifetime of wearing things that someone older thought suitable.

It's absurd to suggest that a 13-year-old girl should have to skip this stage of development just because someone somewhere might get the wrong idea about her. It's just as absurd, and very fundamentalist, to suggest that no one should take photographs of girls unless they are wearing the sexless uniforms we impose on them. "I'm totally aware of the problems," says Nancy Honey, a photographer whose book, Entering The Masquerade, features schoolgirls between the ages of 11 and 13. "But I don't understand why, if it's a problem, you are not supposed to look at it. What I am fascinated by is transformation. I wanted to capture the poignancy of that age when a girl is halfway between a child and a woman." Freezing on film a moment when, for example, a schoolgirl peeks down her jumper to see if her breasts have grown "has nothing to do with child abuse or pornography". The important thing for photographers working with girls on the cusp of womanhood is to be aware of that age's fragility as well as the sexual power some observers see in it. It's not images that exploit children: it's adults who exploit them by bending them to their own fantasies.

According to Stephanie Williams of the charity Children's Express, a press agency run by children, the worst offenders in this area are not fashion designers but the mainstream media. "They portray them in three ways, as failures, as victims, and as perpetrators of crime. That's all that gets into the news." We get acres of expert opinion, she says, on Leah Betts and Ecstasy, school security, sink schools, truancy, and abuse. "But at what point did we hear how the children themselves feel?" When the Evening Standard asked Jerry Hall this week if she would let her daughter Elizabeth model, she said 13 was too early. But as Nancy Honey remarked, "It would have been more interesting if they had asked Elizabeth." If they didn't, it may have been out of fear of what she might say. When I asked my own 13-year-old daughter what she thought about the schoolgirls in the Vivienne Westwood show, she said, "If they wanted to, why shouldn't they? It was probably the ambition of their lifetime. It probably made them really happy. I mean, all they were doing was walking up and down this thin white platform." She should be the one to decide what she wears, she said. "Parents should keep out of it." When I pointed out that girls her age were vulnerable, and that we had to protect them from dirty old men, she pointed out that we watched them like hawks anyway, and wasn't that enough? I know that she is overestimating her wisdom, but I also think girls her age are clearer on some matters than we are or ever will be. When I was 13, I hadn't even heard the term "child abuse". Girls today don't just have the vocabulary, they watch television programmes about it. They have more of a context, and therefore a better idea about what's right and wrong than I did at that age.

That's why we should be hearing more from them in the public arena, not less. The more we see them on their own terms, the easier it will be to see which of our fears have some base in reality and which are chimeras.

But, of course, I would say that, wouldn't I? Not long ago, I gave permission for my daughter to be photographed (as a "normal teenager") for a Vogue article about these same thorny issues. I went along with it because I trusted the people involved, but also thought it was no bad thing for a child that age to see herself as herself in a magazine.

When I was 13, what I found most distressing was the way my parents blushed and averted their eyes rather than acknowledge I had a new shape. There were times when I wondered if they would have preferred me to begin at the neck. I understand now why it was hard for them to say goodbye to the graceful child and welcome the clumsy adult, but how much easier it would have been if I hadn't had to grapple with their fears and confusions as well as my own. I was afraid of my own reflection. I hated my photographs. I wanted to be invisible. That's why I was so pleased to open a magazine and see such a beautiful picture of my daughter at that same age. I thought, well, at least there's one sadness I won't be passing on to her.

She liked the photograph, too, although she was worried about the bags under her eyes. Only she could see these. That doesn't mean she's reading any more into the picture than I am. It's just that when she and I look at the same glossy image of a "normal" 13 year old, we see very different things. But at least we're looking at it together.

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