France Just Took a Major Step in the Fight Against Eating Disorders


The French parliament passed legislation Friday to ban excessively thin models, a decision likely to affect the runway and beyond. If enacted, the law would subject agents and fashion houses to fines or even jail terms for violations, Reuters reported.

The legislation is part of a broader effort to curb incidents of anorexia among French citizens — according to health ministry figures, up to 40,000 French people suffer from anorexia and 90% are women, the Guardian reported Friday. Aside from barring these models, the bill would also ban "thinspiration" websites that encourage excessive thinness. Website owners who violate the new rules would also be subject to fines and jail. In addition, retouched photos must be accompanied by a disclaimer.

This legislation still must pass the Senate, but a policy like this, of course, will invite controversy. 

Jacques Brinon/AP

A controversial solution. France's effort to curb anorexia has been tried before. Italy passed a similar law in in 2006, and Israel followed suit in 2013. However, the moves have not been without controversy: Critics of the law zeroed in on BMI.

According to Reuters, the legislation stipulated that modeling "is banned for any person whose Body Mass Index (BMI) is lower than levels proposed by health authorities and decreed by the ministers of health and labor." 

"[BMI] was never meant to determine a healthy weight," Deb Prinz, a community organizational manager at the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, told Mic. "What a healthy weight is for one person, is not necessarily the same for another." In fact, the BMI was invented by 19th century mathematician Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet to measure aggregate obesity in the general population. He reportedly expressly warned against using BMI as a measurement for individuals. 

Sara Ziff, a model and founder of the Model Alliance told ThinkProgress that "It is unfair and unreasonable to ban healthy models from working just because they have a relatively low BMI."

The fact is that healthy models, like healthy people, come in all shapes and sizes. Prinz suggested a better solution might be to promote a diversity of body types in the fashion world. 

Science, too, has shown that the causes of anorexia are more complex than simply feeling bad about yourself while looking at skinny models. A 2000 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that anorexia had a "heritability of 58%," and according to Prinz, the affliction is the result of a "perfect storm" of factors including genetics, environment and personality. And in a passionate Guardian piece, Hadley Freeman said her anorexia had nothing to do with fashion models, 

At the end of the day, the issue of eating disorders is too complicated for any quick-fix laws. There are, however, some facts about eating disorders and who gets them that are not complicated.


Exporting anorexia: Anorexia may be a mental disorder, but it does not strike everywhere equally. A 2004 study concluded that "The prevalence of eating disorders in non-Western countries is lower than that of the Western countries but appears to be increasing." But growing incidences of eating disorders in non-Western countries could be linked to exported cultural values from the West. In 1995, Dr. George Hsu, of Tufts University School of Medicine, told the New York Times that dieting and eating disorders were on the rise in then-developing countries Taiwan, Singapore and China. 

Similarly, a 1999 study found that before watching Western television, Fijian people considered the ideal body type to be plump, but that after 38 months of exposure, 74% of teenage girls on the island considered themselves "too big or fat," and 15% of girls had induced vomiting to control their weight. Anne Becker, a Harvard professor who participated in the research, said the evidence was significant.

"Nobody was dieting in Fiji 10 years ago," Becker told BBC in 1999. 

With France cutting down on images of models who are too thin, the effects might permeate not just that country, but all around the world, as Paris is a a trendsetting city for fashion. 

Takeaway: Humans are social animals, reactive to their environment and those around them. Making the exemplars of fashion more representative of the population as a whole would go a long way toward broadening the conversation over what is "beautiful." So despite the limited impact they may have, we should still applaud laws like those in France and elsewhere. If we can change the conversation among the arbiters of beauty, that benefit might just trickle down to the rest of us.