The most recent issue of Vogue Paris (or should I say l'issue de janvier/fé vrier?) struck a nerve when it hit newsstands, upsetting the very readers who count on the magazine to be provocative. They're guaranteed it. Vogue Paris's editor in chief, Carine Roitfeld, once told a British journalist that she tries to include "something every month that is—how you say?—not politically correct. A little bit at the limit. Sex, nudity, a bit rock'n'roll, a sense of humour."

Wait, I should clarify: Roitfeld is French Vogue's former editor. Within a few weeks of the December issue's release, Roitfeld announced that she was leaving the magazine. Some commentators speculate that the Cadeaux, or, for English speakers, "Gifts," photo spread went too far, even for French Vogue. What, in this unfailingly erotic publication, could be so troubling that it would arouse rumors such as that one?

In "Cadeaux," the models are very slim—but that's nothing new. Nor is it earth-shattering that they wear too much makeup or that there is something suggestive in the picture of the model inexplicably holding a toothbrush in her mouth. Aren't such photos de rigueur for Vogue? It couldn't be the opulence of the props or that the stiletto-wearing models recline on animal skins. Nor should their blank (yet at the same time, somehow, hostile) expressions raise eyebrows. Non, c'est vrai, all of that is to be expected.

So what could be so bad that it could possibly have cost Roitfeld her job?

I suppose the fact that the models are no older than six or seven years old might have something to do with it.

Wait, a minute, though. Are fans of the December issue correct when they say that those of us who find some of these images disturbing are just dirty-minded ourselves? The girls, after all, aren't naked or engaged in sexual acts. What's wrong with a game of dress-up? Don't all little girls love to raid their mommies' closets and put on high heels and silky slips from time to time? Could I be—how you say?—prudish or naïf to find the pictures unsettling?

The Romantic poet William Wordsworth is known for having written poems idealizing the innocence of childhood. His "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" explores the damage to "delight and liberty, the simple creed of childhood" as children glimpse and then engage in the adult world.

That poem came to my mind a few years ago when my older daughter moved out of size 6X clothes. Suddenly instead of the lollipops, ladybugs, and butterflies that had adorned the shirts and dresses on the racks in the little girls' department, I found myself in a land of low-riding, "distressed" blue jeans and where skulls leered at me from the fronts of T-shirts. They were clothes that seemed suitable for young adults experimenting with an edgy new look or for Jennifer Beals's character in Flashdance. They didn't, however, feel appropriate for my daughter's first day of kindergarten. I retreated online to Hanna Andersson and L. L. Bean—the latter a name so often seen on my kids' clothes that, once or twice, one of my kids was called by that name. I liked the way these companies viewed children as children. The models in their catalogs smiled brightly. They were pictured on swing sets or skiing or jumping rope. Not to get all poetic on you, but they seemed to embrace Wordsworth's notion of childhood's creed. The children were happy, and they were free.

Article continues below

And, yes, of course toddling around in your mom's high heels is a happy pastime for many girls. But the French Vogue spread is different. Its purpose is to sell high-end products, such as parfum, to adults. That there is so much sex in the surrounding pages also affects the way these images are understood.

Fashion designer Tom Ford was the guest editor and designed the controversial issue, including "Cadeaux." Is it relevant that Ford is a close friend to photographer Terry Richardson (whose work is featured elsewhere in the December/January issue), and that Richardson has been accused of preying on child models and has written and gleefully performed a song called "Child Molester's Coming For You"?

I think so.

It's not only the surrounding pages or Ford's affiliation with Richardson that trouble me in regards to the photos. It's some of the elements of the wider culture as well. This is a world in which many very young girls look to Paris Hilton as a role model, a woman who was arrested for the third time (most recently for cocaine possession) last summer and who addresses her young fans about the perils of making sex videos with their boyfriends. "I want young girls to never put themselves in that situation …. Don't ever let someone talk you into doing something you don't want to do," she advises. It's a culture in which teen clothing companies add maternity lines to their offerings. (And what's with Justice's "Monster High?" Blech. It makes me long for the soft embrace of my old Raggedy Ann doll.)

Fashion can be inventive and fun. It can drive us to question some of what we take for granted—and I think those are good things. But the cynical "Cadeaux" goes too far. Instead of eroticizing them and presenting these little girls as sexy pushers of luxury items, mes amis, I say let them eat cake.

Fresh out of the Easy-Bake Oven.