America’s Next Top Model’s fetishizing take on “purity”

For more pics, check out Women’s Glib.
America’s Next Top Model doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to sexism and photo shoots, so I guess this shouldn’t shock me. The show had the models dress up like little girls as a way to promote…purity?

This issue is really important to me, the issue of teen girls and being what I call ‘out of control.’ I did a survey on my talk-show website, and I found that one in five girls that are teens that we surveyed actually want to be a teen mom. Purity and innocence is something that’s being lost and as you Top Models are doing this photo shoot, you guys are role models, too. The assignment was for you all to embody different little games that little girls play on the playground.

I write about this a lot in The Purity Myth (cough, buy it, cough), but I’ll say it again: fetishizing “purity” and “innocence” generally just means that you end up fetishizing little girls.
UPDATE: Community blogger LTB also wrote a kick-ass post about this (long before I did, it seems – my bad!).

Join the Conversation

  • The Boggart

    The cognitive dissonance involved in simultaneously promoting “little girl” style sexuality e.g “sexy” Little Red Riding Hood Halloween costumes, school uniforms and children’s toys as turn-ons e.t.c. whilst utter hysteria surrounds potential paedophilia is incredible to me.


    I can’t stand Tyra Banks or her stupid shows. ANTM needs to die already. Pathetic girls competing over modeling and crying when they think they’re not pretty enough. Boo hoo my arse!


    YES!!! I’ve been saying something similar to that, too. How ironic that “To Catch a Predator” is so popular, yet this nation is obsessed with sexing up little girls. Lovely.

  • The Boggart

    In some ways it seems to me that modern beauty standards for women are linked uncomfortably closely with prepubescent girls; flat and underdeveloped bodies predominate, as does that peculiarly modern phobia of all body hair, stretch-marks, hips or any other indication of sexual maturity.

  • Ningyou

    Well, my partner has a habit of coming up to me with somewhat vague sociological questions (“Why do men have to act so MANLY all the time?” “Why are people so homophobic?”, etc.) and one thing she was wondering recently is why there’s so much crazy emphasis on a woman’s virginity in American culture (not that it exists here exclusively of course, but we live here.)
    I tried to answer as best I could, describing reproductive/sexual oppression as a way of controlling women and reducing them from complex human beings to something much less, but I’m not sure I covered everything or described it properly. I should probably just buy the book for her, but until I do — is there a way of summarizing the motivations behind the cultural obsession with a woman’s virginity?
    I’m sure it’d make a great conversation starter if I could come back with a real set of answers to her question — she loves to debate about this kind of thing. (Pity neither of us watch ANTM or I could point this photoshoot out to her as well.)

  • MissKittyFantastico

    I don’t understand that photo. Is the girl in the background pregnant?

  • Kate

    Each model had to play a game and show youthful innocence, while 3 “bad girls” (pregnant, smoking, surly, etc.) hung around the background as a sort of What Not to Do. Because, you know, we all fall into either the Good Girl or Bad Girl category. -_-

  • SarahMC

    Looks like I picked the right year to quit watching that ridiculous, insulting show.

  • MissKittyFantastico

    How is wearing high heels and a miniskirt while the camera films you from below at all showing innocence? I feel like if the hula hoop were moved slightly I’d be able to see her underwear. The girl in the hula hoop does not look innocent, she looks like a crazy 22 year old trying to act slutty on Halloween. I kept trying to figure out if she’s wearing some sort of Sexy Witch costume or what.

  • Steph

    Occasionally one of the contestants will refuse to do something, like cut her hair. Pity one of them didn’t refuse to do this and take a stand.

  • wax_ghost

    I’m guessing that isn’t how you meant it but a fully developed woman’s body doesn’t necessarily always have big boobs or a lot of curves.

  • Cactus Wren

    To be perfectly blunt, it reminded me of the pseudo-child-porn magazines — the sort in which eighteen-year-olds dress up in knee socks and saddle shoes, with their hair in childish pigtails, and pose on set that’s designed to look like a little girl’s bedroom.

  • The Boggart

    When I see that hula hoop, (complete with prissy little flourish) all I can think of is some sort of well-trained circus animal being put through its paces.
    Also, I’d been so repelled by the entire concept that I hadn’t even noticed the fake pregnant fake bad girls, nor the inherent hypocrisy in flaunting your sexual innocence by letting a camera film your (short) skirt from below.

  • Tiana

    Why do people not understand that grown women + little girl aesthetic = EW?!
    I must admit, I loved ANTM in high school and probably still would if I had a TV/time to watch it, but it is so problematic for so many reasons.

  • White Priveleged Male

    I think the girls in the back are dressed as the “bad girls” (well…at least how an episode of Blossom would depict them)
    They’ve stopped playing with their childhood toys, traded in their hip gyration discs for cigarettes and fornication. You can easily tell their impropriety as the pregnant one is wearing shameful thigh high stockings instead of innocent knee-highs.

  • Opheelia

    I don’t think the girls are pathetic. I think they grew up in a society that taught them that their looks would get them through life. When they’re eliminated from this contest, that’s a direct affront to a major portion of their identity. I think we should be critiquing the social construct that makes trainwrecks like this show popular, not the participants.

  • The Boggart

    Exactly! You’ve just articulated specifically why this makes me so uneasy. I suppose that being submerged in the high fashion industry for so long, it was no longer possible for those involved to understand why the entire concept is wrong.

  • wax_ghost

    It’s so sad to me how hard Tyre tries to make it look like she cares and how much she always manages to screw it up. I can’t think of a single one of her advocacy things that hasn’t made me laugh at her for the poor way they are executed.
    This one made me wonder if she was advocating forcing teenage girls to double dutch, hula hoop, and play jacks – things that, as far as I know, not even little girls do anymore and that would have bored the teenage me to death. Not to mention, the idea that teenage girls need to be shamed into not “running wild” (are they even doing that anyway?) while teenage boys are free to do whatever the hell they want rubs me the wrong way. The message I got from this photo shoot is that women are supposed to stay at home, not explore themselves or the world, and stay little girls forever. No thanks.

  • Opheelia

    That is EXACTLY what I was thinking. I don’t understand how Tyra Banks can juxtapose this type of misogynistic crap with her talk show, where she purports to be an empowering voice for women. She talks about issues facing women and fails to see the connection between media representations of women and relationship violence and sexual assault.

  • Opheelia

    That is EXACTLY what I was thinking.

  • The Boggart

    You’re right – I don’t subscribe to the concept of defining women as “real” or otherwise according to their BMI.
    In fact, I actually dislike the tired refrain “real women have curves”; it’s an intellectually lazy answer, which artificially divides us into “women” and “un-women”, without providing any insight or analysis.
    “Real women with curves” are only considered to be so if they have exactly the right amount; too much or too little and any claim to womanhood is automatically stripped from them.
    I was simply commenting on the disturbing way our society fetishizes sexually immature bodies (i.e. hairless, no stretchmarks) as a beauty ideal for grown women.

  • xpattix

    while i get your point jessica (and other commenters), i kind of disagree. Firstly, the vast majority of viewers of this show are (straight) women. {i can give you a source but i’m too lazy to look it up-} so the target audience isn’t men who have “fetishes” of little girls. it’s women who are interested in fashion/reality tv/modeling. on a similar point- the goal of the photos isn’t to look sexy- it’s to look edgy (or “fierce” as tyra would say) again, i think your misinterpreting the intention (and/or its consequences).
    personally, i don’t think this even comes close to crossing any lines of inappropriateness. while it has the potential to be slightly controversial- it seems your analysis of this example is a bit out of context.

  • johanna in dairyland

    That’s pretty much what I was thinking.
    Oh, Tyra, I think her heart’s in the right place most of the time, but her execution always just misses the target.

  • MissKittyFantastico

    Also, if its all about little girl innocence, why is it so DARK? I guess there is nothing in there that really says Halloween but that’s what it makes me think of.

  • The Boggart

    I don’t doubt that straight women are probably this show’s target demographic, however it’s about creating and mainstreaming a culture in which the sexualization of little girls is the norm, and the “Madonna/whore” dichotomy is further perpetuated. It’s not about the potential sexual titillation of paedophiles, in the sense that I’m sure there exist plenty of similarly dodgy but more hardcore images: the issue is that this damages women and girls of all ages.

  • hellotwin

    I am pretty sure that neither I nor my friends ever wore anything like that to hula hoop in when we were young girls. And we didn’t usually hang out in dark, deserted parks either. It is interesting that Tyra thinks that the sign of being out of control is that some girls want to be teen moms. And that these women are supposed to be role models…of what? I agree that they are feeding into the idea of fetishizing little girls, which is not really something that others should emulate…as if there isn’t enough of it already.

  • The Law Fairy

    The fact that straight women may be the target audience hardly means this isn’t flat-out fetishization. Straight women are every bit as capable as men of fetishizing women (often, we’re the worst culprits, in fact).
    Fetishizing doesn’t require sexual attraction (at least, not in the colloquial sense). It’s in essence dehumanization of a segment of the population on bases that are untrue, exaggerated, and/or unfairly judged.

  • Femgineer

    Maybe if there were more GOOD role models for little girls they would not have scramble to find an attainable goal once they figure out that the beauty standard they are expected to attain is impossible. Maybe, with practical goals, they won’t be drawn to being teen mothers once the prom queen dream is gone.

  • FrumiousB

    Actually, many top models are barely out of puberty. Not that there is only one way to look when a girl is barely out of puberty – some girls barely out of puberty have curves.

  • Phoebe

    Thanks so much for linking to us (Women’s Glib), Jessica! Silvia and I were both SO grossed out by the way “little girls” were portrayed.

  • ElleStar

    This was the first episode with 13 models. It started out in the daylight. But if each model got a half an hour to do her thing, it’s still going to be a really long day.
    It was an outside shoot and they couldn’t control when the sun set. A lot of models did get their photos done in the daylight.

  • borrow_tunnel

    Yes that’s so true. It’s common for a runway model to be 14 when she starts out, as was Tyra and Kimora (sp?)Lee. When I hear that kind of stuff I think of how I was at 14. Not model material, I’ll tell ya that. Zits, awkwardness, everything. I would not have been ready to be objectified by so many people at 14. I almost think of it as child prostitution, because that’s what it is. They’re selling (the image of) their bodies to make money. After you hear ages like that, you can’t look at an ad with a model the same way. You think “I bet she’s really 16, only wearing makeup to look older”. The book I’m reading about Gia Carangi talks a little about how Brooke Shields was pushed into modeling by her overbearing mother. The book “Thing of Beauty”, even says she was in a photo shoot that mimicked incest with a model that was supposed to look like a father.

  • borrow_tunnel

    Yes, have you noticed everyone Tyra is friends with and brings on her two shows is craazy and insulting? They’re always making fun of weight or looks like it’s nothing. I’m thinking, hello? this is a human being you’re talking to! I stopped watching the show, too.

  • Citizen Lane

    “To Catch a Predator” is most likely popular because people find the issue of pedophilia to be salacious and forbidden (and therefore a turn-on). People don’t normally watch it to see pervs get their come-uppance. They watch it so that they can hear stories about chatting up young people (even if those young people are really cops).

  • dontboxsarah

    hey i know this is totally not what this thread is about, but it’d be cool if, when you linked to your book, you linked to independent or women’s bookstores instead of amazon. i’m sure you know this, but it’s really hard for independent bookstores to stay in business as places for radical thought and it’s even harder for independent women’s bookstores to do so. how about some linking love for for all those indie booksellers who are out there handselling your book to folks?

  • xocoatl

    young people are getting lost here.
    they have sexuality and agency too.
    I think people have more ability to like things for themselves than Valenti’s criticism leaves room for.
    It seems to me that the argument being presented is: young girls are not and cannot be sexual. Representations of older women dressing/impersonating younger women makes it acceptable for girls under 18 to be sexual.
    There are a number of concerns that I have with this argument:
    -Young people have sexuality – I was having sex before I was 18. Historically, people were often married and having children before this age. The question of whether or not to have children or engage in sexual relationships is an individual choice.
    -Desiring older women dressing as younger girls is valid – Saying that these images are “disgusting” stigmatizes and excludes people who enjoy them.
    -People uncritically accept images they’re presented with in the media – I think that people who watch these images have the ability to do what they’d like with them. These images aren’t “forcing” anyone to like or dislike anything in particular. Viewing them is voluntary. The idea that these images will automatically cause legions of people (remember, men aren’t always the enemy) to sexualize young girls in destructive ways is just false.
    -Desiring “purity” or “innocence” is morally wrong – I don’t think this is true. I think it’s kind of violent and destructive. It also stigmatizes people who make the choice to not have sex until later in their lives. I’m certainly not one of these people, but I think they have the ability to make that decision for themselves.

  • puckalish

    I actually took Valenti’s criticism to be that this is a double-standard. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with young people having an active and engaging sexuality. There’s also nothing wrong with people choosing to abstain or be celibate.
    There is, however, something wrong with continually sexualizing young people in the media at the same time as telling them that their worth as individuals is tied to their sexual “purity.” This is exactly what Banks’ show was doing. Lecturing on how teens shouldn’t be having sex, then dressing models up like sexy children; this is what is problematic.

  • LalaReina

    I am not sure what is more annoying: when the conservatives stress over gays or the liberals stress the purity folks.

  • Mollie

    Ugh, this show is sooo frustrating. I always wonder, are they that blind to the objectification and everything or are they just ignoring it?
    Oh, on the link to the photos, around number 248 they pose as sexy homeless people.
    But this photo: do I see some underarm hair? Hooray!

  • moonfall

    My first thought was “why is she dressed like a sexed-up Minnie Mouse?” I’ve never seen little girls dressed like that. The whole scene looks like a bad 80’s movie.

  • Mollie

    and around #470… a transgender theme?

  • Jessica Lee

    While I understand that Tyra went about sending the message across the wrong way (and is even slightly off in her message), I don’t think this is a big issue. I don’t find it to be “sexualizing” little girls, and the person who posted this blog just happened to choose the “sexiest” picture out of the group. Besides, it seems like the only reason this photoshoot is being deemed as being sexual in nature is because of the meaning people are GIVING it. if they were wearing these outfits and bending over so their underwear “accidentally” can be seen, then I would see it. However, the target of this photoshoot was just to have fun and not rush growing up, which as a high school senior, I see happen quite often.
    Do I agree with Tyra that girls either have to be pure and innocent or a whore? Absolutely not. But I don’t see anything incredibly wrong with this photoshoot. Besides, little girls’ skirts go fly up all the time while playing (I would know). Having that in this picture doesn’t automatically make it sexual.