Manicured children strut down the catwalk at a
Beijing fashion show, one of thousands of events driving huge demand for child
models in China that insiders warn leaves minors vulnerable to physical abuse,
12-hour-days and unrelenting pressure from pushy parents.

The kids’ apparel market is growing faster than any other clothing sector
in the country and was worth more than 40.5 billion US dollars in 2018 according to

This, combined with the rise of “kidfluencers” sponsored by brands to
promote products on social media, is spurring greater demand for young models
— but experts warn of the heavy cost of pursuing such deals.

“If children don’t listen to the parents then I think hitting them is quite
standard,” Lee Ku, founder of Le Show Stars modelling school, told AFP.

A video of a mother kicking her three-year-old daughter in fury at her
failure to comply during a modelling job went viral earlier this year, causing
outrage online.

And footage emerged in early August online of a young boy modelling thick
winter clothes outside as temperatures soared to 37 degrees Celsius, also
drawing heavy online criticism.

But in an industry where minors can earn 10,000 yuan (1,450 US dollars) a session,
Lee says the clip is the tip of the iceberg and that from his experience, such
violent behaviour from parents was not unusual on shoots.

Child models sometimes go through more than 100 outfit changes in a
session, often working from morning till night.

But mental health experts warn it is not just physical exhaustion they have
to contend with — there may be long term emotional implications.

“Children from the age of zero to six are mentally developing, they need a
lot of exploration and freedom,” explained child psychologist Gong Xueping.

“At work, the child model will deliberately show a lot of different
expressions… but this is contrary to the child’s own feelings of the moment.

This limits the development of both emotional abilities and more complex
psychological abilities for children, so I think it’s a very bad choice,” Gong

Hundreds of competitions

But there remains no shortage of parents interested in pushing their
children into the profession.

Founded three years ago, Le Show Stars was one of the first modelling
schools in Beijing, where customers pay up to 800 yuan for a private
one-on-one lesson.

Four-year-old twins Yumi and Yuki Xiao are not yet professional models but
for nearly two years they have been taking classes where they are taught how
to pose and pace the catwalk in the hopes that they can break into the

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“For some catwalking competitions, they have to be in the makeup room by
6:00 am,” their father Xiao Liang said.

“The real competition starts at 2pm, and they finish around 3pm or 4. So
the whole thing, takes a whole day. From 6:00 am to 6:00 pm — 12 hours is
pretty standard.”
Their parents invest in taking them around the country to compete in
hundreds of national child modelling competitions.

“It’s a lot of fun. I like being on stage,” insisted Yumi.

Like many other parents Xiao says he initially enrolled the two in child
modelling to build their self confidence, but after Yumi and Yuki showed
interest they started to invest more time and money into building a possible
child modelling career path for them.

Occasionally the twins are paid to model seasonal fashion lines for big

“I think they are one of a kind, firstly, they’re twins, and they’re also
boy-girl twins,” father Xiao says proudly.

“They also like it, which is why we are giving them this opportunity. I
think they have a natural advantage over other kids,” he added.

‘Lost childhoods’

China’s laws around child labour are complicated and parents of underage
models are sometimes paid in secret to sidestep the red tape required to
employ them.

Responding to the kicking video, Hangzhou authorities introduced
regulations to limit the hours children work and ban children under 10 from
being brand spokespeople.

But many feel authorities are doing too little to protect kids from

More than 110 child retailers on e-commerce giant Taobao said they would
scale back use of young models, and also demanded more regulations.

Thousands have debated the topic online, calling for rules to be tightened
to prevent abuse.

“To me, child models are nothing different from child labour. They have to
finish their work no matter how tired they are when other children are playing
and their short childhoods are lost making money for their parents. I suggest
that we step up legislation… to protect their rights and interests,” one
Weibo user said.

Another commented that some parents see their offspring only as a
“money-making tool” adding: “The only way is to strengthen regulation,
supervision and protection.”

Xiao and his wife Bai Yu said they were aware of the potential pitfalls of
the profession and any decision to pursue it would be up to their son and

He said: “If they study well and they are interested in the prospect (of
being a model), then I am sure to be 100 percent supportive, as long as they
are willing to spend their energy in this area.”(AFP)

Photo by Đàm Tướng Quân from Pexels