It is fair to say that at some point in their lives, 99 percent of people will struggle with their perception of themselves and their bodies, particularly during a time when it is changing, such as adolescence.
Our media is obsessed with looks, there are constant lists being created with titles like ‘Hollywood’s Best Bums’ or ‘This Week’s Sexiest Red-Carpet Looks’. When people are presented to us as simple images, it is very easy to assign them with a surface value according to how ‘appealing’ they look, and nowadays it is very easy to publicly share your opinions. Consequently, it is easy to forget that these people being judged are real, they have vulnerabilities, and they have the right not to have to hear Terry, 38 from Hertfordshire’s opinion on how bad they look on one given day. This is hard enough to stomach when the picture in question is of an adult, but there is another more harmful layer added when the person being judged is a child.
Think back to when you were 14 and trying to figure out how to feel confident. Now imagine that instead of being worried about being judged by classmates and relatives, you have to worry about the possibility that millions of people around the world will judge you based solely on your appearance. If someone on the street were to go up to teenagers and yell, ‘that outfit makes you look too old’ or ‘give me a call in five years,’ they would probably be arrested. But for some reason, it is deemed almost acceptable to comment this on child star’s pictures. What makes it worse is that the media industry doesn’t seem to find the trend concerning.
Take Taylor Lautner for example, in 2009 when he was only 17, he appeared on Rolling Stone magazine’s cover in a wet, skin-tight t-shirt. This wasn’t a magazine aimed at his peers; this was a magazine aimed at an older adult audience, encouraging them to gaze upon and judge a teenager’s body. While interviewed at only 16, Lautner explained how weird it was to find out women had underwear with his name on, and at 18 he had to stop studios from making him go bare-chested for no good reason other than to peddle his image as a sex symbol. Rather than the mature adults around him taking action to stop him being overly sexualised, he had to take things into his own hands.
Multiple times over the years there have been disturbing countdowns created online for when child actors came of legal age (Emma Watson and the Olsen twins being two prime examples). As a culture, we seem to have become desensitised to the idea of sexualising underage teens. Children are already vulnerable, but allowing those who have high visibility to be seen as sexual objects creates a twisted kind of societal grooming in which it almost becomes expected for stars to have at least one obsessed adult fan.
In an article for Elle magazine, Mara Wilson, of Mrs Doubtfire and Matilda fame, discusses the fact that at the age of 15 and years after she stopped acting, she was still getting perverted letters from grown men. But now with the advent of social media there is an even higher level of accessibility to these famous children. It’s worrying enough to see crude comments and messages sent to adult actors online, but it becomes even more threatening when the recipient is still growing up.
Messages focused solely on looks would be damaging to anyone, but with the detachment that being behind a screen creates, it is easy to forget the reality of a teenage actor sat on set looking through their Twitter feed and seeing thousands of messages about them being either ‘ugly’ or ‘sexy’. There is a responsibility on those around young celebrities to do all they can not to purvey a sexualised view of them, but there is also a responsibility on us as an audience to focus on their work and not their looks.