IF IT wasn't for the glimpse of her right breast, it would be very easy to mistake Lily Cole for a 12-year-old girl rather than a 20 year old woman. Naked, with her red hair in pigtails and wearing nothing but white socks and with a teddy bear between her legs, Cole strikes a provocative prepubescent pose on the front cover of this month's French Playboy magazine. The unsettling image toys dangerously with sexuality in much the same way as did Britney Spears in Hit Me Baby One More Time.
Cole's Playboy appearance has provoked debate but not the kind that it ought to. Faced with criticism for her appearance in the top shelf magazine, the Cambridge student and M&S model argued that "nudity has always existed in art, it doesn't necessarily debase anymore than it celebrates the human body". Since her erudite statement, websites and papers have been enjoying haughty debates about whether her Playboy image constitutes a "nude" in the artistic sense.
But surely there's another, far more important, debate to be had on the fact that it is now considered acceptable to dress up as a child and appear on the front cover of Playboy. So desensitised are we that we don't even bother to remark upon it anymore.
While the world is debating the artistic merits of the Playboy cover, it seems no one is too concerned with the fact that a 20-year-old model dressed to look like a child is considered "sexy". Like it or not, Playboy sells sex and Hollywood icons from Marilyn Monroe to Cindy Crawford, Farrah Fawcett and Rachel Hunter are just some of the magazine's favourite 'bunnies'. The same bunny has now become the ubiquitous brand that girls as young as five have on their schoolbags, pencil cases and T-shirts. This is the same bunny symbol that Hugh Hefner, the magazine's founder, said he chose for its "humorous sexual connotation". The sex industry is creeping into our children's lives and it seems little can be done to curb this trend.
But one has to question why an intelligent woman with a successful modelling career would feel OK about dressing up as a child on the front of a soft porn magazine. In 2007, singer Nelly Furtado refused $500,000 to appear in Playboy, saying, "It was tempting, it almost plays on your vanity but I like to save a little bit for the bedroom".
There's no doubt that vanity drives most celebs who strip off for Playboy. Pamela Anderson has appeared for the publication 13 times and recently attended Hugh Hefner's birthday party, performing a naked lap dance for the octogenarian. Her nude show was broadcast on a US reality show with her nipples and genitals blurred out. Anderson, 41, said, "I am definitely doing Playboy again. I can't end on number 13. Yes, I have got to do one more."
While it may not be palatable to all, Pamela's case is straightforward. She is the stereotypical lads' mag cover girl, all fake breasts, bleached hair and full-on sexuality. It's not a real reflection of female sexuality but it is adult and she has never claimed that her image is some kind of art form. Cole, on the other hand, is trying to pawn off her recent shoot as "art" whilst also skimming over the fact that the portrait itself is morally questionable, to say the least. From the Pussycat Dolls to Girls Aloud, never before has mainstream culture been so overtly sexual but surely we have to draw the line somewhere?
White socks, teddy bears and pink ribbons are the ingredients of little girls' lives, not the props of porn producers. Disturbingly, there are hardcore pornography websites featuring "sexy teens in school uniforms" or "young sexy babes in nothing but little white ankle socks". This is the dark underbelly of the internet but one which we are in danger of normalising.
Internet pornography has never had it so good. In this time of recession, it's one of few industries still experiencing a boom. In the US alone, the number of pornographic web pages has grown 3,000 per cent since 1998.
While the internet porn industry has been raking in the profits, the same has not been true for Playboy. The company posted some unattractive figures early this year as its magazine suffered a migration of readers and advertisers to racy, often free offerings on the internet. They slipped into the red in 2007 with a loss of $1.1m, compared with a $3.7m profit a year earlier. Worryingly, the brand has since further diversified and the children's market has been proving a lucrative one for the Hefner empire.
One mother said, "my five-year-old girl is obsessed with Playboy stuff but I just can't allow it, other mothers say it's just a bunny and that I'm being ridiculous but it's not just a bunny to me, it symbolises a magazine that objectifies female sexuality." The UK pressure group Object, which campaigned against WH Smith's promotion of the Playboy brand to children, commented, "Playboy's logo clearly represents pornography. The magazine routinely features sexualised and full-frontal images of naked young women. WH Smith is therefore endorsing pornography to young, impressionable and possibly underage girls."
Lily Cole would do us all a great service by posing for Playboy as the 20-year-old woman she is. Forget art and leave childhood to children. It's getting shorter by the day.