Balenciaga: the scandal of minors’ sexualization

The high-end fashion brand Balenciaga from Spain has recently found itself in controversy. The new “Gift Collection” holiday campaign that was released in mid-November involves toddlers holding teddy bears in “bondage” gear such as harnesses and nets, as well as children in the ads being surrounded by items such as wine glasses and flasks. They have been accused of the exploitation and sexualization of minors. Only after a tweet went viral addressing the issue, Balenciaga responded two weeks later saying that they shouldn’t have involved children, and removed the campaign from their website.
These bears show up in the 2023 gift collection for the spring/summer collection, the launch featuring two campaigns; both received backlash. They involve themes of violence and demonic symbolism, yet use babies as their models. The background of the campaign also contained questionable items, as pointed out by people online. This 2023 spring campaign contained an image of an office, containing the document of “United States v. Williams,” a case which centered on sexual child abuse material. Specifically, there was a page found in one of the images from the campaign, which is a 2008 court case “Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition,” which is about the Child Pornography Prevention Act.
Once the public commented on this, the set designers working with Balenciaga said that these papers were “obtained from a prop house”. In the same ad, they found a book written by Michaël Borremans, where some of the pages contain art drawn by him of children experiencing trauma, often depicted naked. After days of criticism and discoveries, Balenciaga announced a $23 million dollar lawsuit against their own production company, which was dropped just a week later.
Suggestions show that due to the items found in the background of the ads, Balenciaga used hidden messages of child abuse and sexualization as promotion for their products. Despite these “hidden” messages, Balenciaga denied the book’s relation to the ads, saying that it was “just a coincidence” which is very unlikely. This is just one way of how sexualized our media has become, and the effects it has on children.
Sexualzation worldwide on social media and advertisements is present and normalized in the media. UNICEF USA references a study by researches at Wesleyan University who “found that on average, across 58 different magazines, 51.8 percent of advertisements that featured women portrayed them as sex objects. However, when women appeared in advertisements in men’s magazines, they were objectified 76 percent of the time.”
They also went into more specifics and showed statistics of its effects on teenage girls, and how objectified women are in the media affects how girls’ view themselves. “Research conducted for the Dove Self Esteem Project found that only 11 percent of girls worldwide would call themselves beautiful and six in ten girls avoid participating in life activities because of concerns about the way they look. One-third of all 6-year-olds in Japan experience low body confidence. Australian girls list body image as one of their top three worries in life, while 81 percent of 10-year old girls in the U.S. say they are afraid of being fat.” The ideals placed on women in the media are damaging psychologically to everybody, especially young girls. This is the effect media has on everyone, and how normalized sexualization is in social media on a global level.
In order for change to happen, clothing companies and advertisers need to be held responsible for the influence their campaigns and clothing have, something that consumers can impact. A boycott by consumers would send a strong message that child abuse is an unacceptable message to condone through their ad campaigns and force them to take accountability. Only time will tell what long-term impact this campaign and reaction will have on Balenciaga.