Singer-songwriter and social media star Donnalyn Bartolome is getting flak for the now-deleted photos from her sexy baby-themed 28th birthday shoot. Bartolome isn’t the first artist to use the troubling adult baby aesthetic, and if recent style trends and viral content are anything to go by, she probably won’t be the last. So why does sexual infantilism continue to reach the mainstream and how does that affect young girls and women?
In the hopes of discouraging others from planning a similar photo shoot, let’s briefly describe the photos. The concept was an imitation of monthly milestone baby pictorials, which seems innocuous at first glance. However, Bartolome wore a seductive expression in most of the photos. There’s an overhead shot of Bartolome drinking from a baby bottle while dressed in a tight pink onesie and one of her in a cloth diaper and a bib as her top. There were also daring bathtub photos where she’s using a pacifier.
The shoot, along with a behind-the-scenes vlog, was posted on her Facebook and Instagram pages on July 9. Following heavy backlash from netizens who raised that it was sexualizing toddler clothes and feeding pedophilic fantasies, Bartolome took all posts related to the shoot down.
“It was an honest mistake, it was never my intention to enable one of the most horrifying acts here on Earth. I couldn’t remove my post right away because I needed it to copyright the photos to prevent the spread of it furthermore until I got a go signal from Facebook and other socmed managers, an assurance that they know I am the owner of the photo and they’ll help me correct this by taking down all of the posts involving this photoshoot,” wrote Bartolome in her public apology.
She thanked everyone who helped her understand the faults of the shoot and took the post as an opportunity to bring attention to the children’s care facility, Nayon ng Kabataan. Although slightly vague about the implications it could have on kids, it’s one of the better examples of public apologies from local celebs that take accountability.
But how harmful is the sexy adult baby aesthetic really? Teen-ran Affinity Magazine wrote about Martinez’s use of it: “When she presents a pacifier, a sippy cup, or a baby doll in a sexualized manner, she is encouraging the association of those objects with consensual sexual activity. However, when the people who receive this message seek that same sexual experience, they are met with children who are underage and unable to consent, who then become victims.” Intentionally or not, the aesthetic may encourage seeking out sexual or romantic satisfaction in non-sexual environments from people who can’t consent.
In this machismo-filled society designed to cater to the sexual needs of men, youthfulness is seen as desirable not just because it fits into beauty standards but also for the implication that the person bearing it can be controlled. With men still largely in power, it’s unsurprising that women are often the ones who use or are forced to project an innocent and vulnerable but sexy image. Another example of hypersexualization of things associated with kids is the sexy schoolgirl image. There has been extensive research from the likes of the American Psychological Association proving that the proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women harms girls’ self-image and healthy development. This harm can also extend until adulthood.
“At the same time that young women are disadvantaged by age and gender, youth does carry currency, which can be mistaken for power. If you are a woman, however, this currency is not on your terms. When my abuser said he thought that it was I who ‘had all the power’ while he was a hapless, insecure, wealthy, much-older-than-me man who didn’t know what he was doing, I at first believed him,” wrote Tavi Gevinson about “weaponized sex positivity” for The Cut. She added that the men who preyed on her younger self “taught me to hate myself by valuing the things a woman can never be: infantile, guileless, inexperienced.”
Kinkier folk may be wondering if this also the case with ageplay, a form of roleplaying where a person acts or is treated like a baby sexually or non-sexually. But what differentiates paraphilic infantilists from pedophiles is that they do not seek minors. What two consenting adults do in private together is their business. But when sharing any type of NSFW content, creators must take responsibility for how it affects their viewers, too.
Is there ever an instance when the adult baby aesthetic is permissible? On the internet where young people aren’t strictly protected from consuming adult content or from being reached by predators, the conscientious answer is no. Content creators and public figures must take extra care not to contribute to the hypersexualization of young people. Don’t risk contributing to harm for clout.
As for pedophiles, predators, and people who don’t identify as such but get a kick out of sexualizing kids? They belong behind bars. This isn’t a preference, it’s plain sexual abuse and exploitation of people who can’t give their consent.