Can you legislate a model’s body weight?
The French Parliament is debating legislation that would do exactly that: it would ban the employment of models with a body mass index measurement below an agreed-upon minimum, essentially setting a minimum weight for models in the country. To get a sense of what that would mean for an individual, the BMI indiciates that a woman who is 5’6″ should weigh at least 115 pounds; a model of, say, 5’11”, would need to weigh closer to 135 pounds.
The movement has the support of President François Hollande’s Socialist government, according to the New York Times, and aims to fight eating disorders among members of the modeling and fashion industry. Failure to comply would result in criminal penalties: a fine of approximately $53,000 and up to six months in prison.
Hot on the heels of France’s announcement, Denmark introduced a rewritten version of the Danish Fashion Ethical Charter. The original is from 2007; this new edition is written by, among others, the Danish Fashion Institute, eight of the nation’s biggest modeling agencies, and the Danish Association Against Eating Disorders and Self-Harm. It is not quite as harsh as the French approach, relying more on changing the culture of the industry and less on actual laws. Also notably absent from the charter are any numbers to indicate how much any particular model should weigh, as opposed to the BMI-based system the French law wants to implement.
What the charter does include are regular health checkups, an age limit — which, at 16 years of age, is not exactly preventing the very young from engaging in work for grown-ups — promises to keep healthy food available during photo shoots, and mandatory wages. That last one is a biggie, believe it or not; models can be paid in “trade,” a.k.a., “thanks for the work, here’s a jacket, you can go home now.”
Signing the charter is voluntary, but those who do will get to use the Ethical Fashion brand on their websites.
If the Denmark system sounds familiar, it’s because it has a lot in common with what’s currently in place in America: the Council of Fashion Designers of America formed a health initiative to address similar concerns here in the U.S. It, too, is a pledge, not an obligation, and is full of language about what those in the industry “should” do, not what they must.
France’s proposed legislation is more along the lines of what already exists in Israel, where the employment of underweight and underage models is banned. Italy and Spain have more CFDA-type pledges in place, though they have considered legislation. And if this passes in France, it could be a harbinger of changes around the world; in the fashion industry, Paris sets the tone.
Sara Ziff, model and founder of The Model Alliance, an organization focused on increasing transparency and bringing change to the industry, wrote via email that though “I agree that the fashion industry should promote a healthy ideal,” she thinks the French legislation is a bad idea. “I do not think it is fair to legislate body mass index standards for models. As doctors and eating disorders specialists have said, BMI is not an accurate measure of individual health; rather, it was formulated to measure across populations and it makes no allowance for the relative proportions of bone, muscle and fat in the body. BMI suggests there are distinct categories of underweight, ideal, overweight and obese, with sharp boundaries that hinge on a decimal place, which is simply not true. It is unfair and unreasonable to ban healthy models from working just because they have a relatively low BMI.”
The Danish charter, however, is a step up from the CFDA initiative. “Self-regulation can be problematic, and the fashion industry has not been known to be good at policing itself,” said Ziff, citing the Child Model Act, a 2013 bill championed by the Model Alliance that extended child labor protections — the kind that child actors enjoy — to child models in New York. Denmark’s proposal requires companies and individuals who want to participate in Copenhagen Fashion Week to sign the charter; those who refuse or fail to adhere to its rules will be rejected from the event and publicly blacklisted. “There are no such penalties for companies that fail to meet the CFDA’s guidelines and, for this reason, these guidelines are often ignored,” Ziff said.
She also applauded Denmark’s provision for compulsory wages. “Models, like anyone who works for a living, deserve to be paid money, not just in clothes (effectively free advertising) for their work,” she said. “It goes without saying: you can’t pay your rent with a tank top. The common practice of payment in trade does not get the same level of attention as concerns about models’ weight and body image, but it contributes to models’ overall lack of empowerment in the workplace.”
It’s easy to rattle off a list of why models shouldn’t be dangerously thin: maintaining that skinny status quo is unhealthy for everyone involved, from models who are forced by industry standards to subsist on little-to-no food to female consumers presented with a definition of beauty that no one should, or could, be expected to achieve. The debate around whether or not models are too skinny is almost as old as modeling itself, rising in volume whenever models appear to drop precipitously in body mass: the Twiggy era in the ’60s, the Kate Moss-led “heroin chic” years in the ’90s, and again today, as the women making their way down runways are, in fact, usually girls and not women.
But the reasons why it has been so difficult to change what seem like very simple problems are more complex. For one thing, there’s no incentive to change (that is, until there’s a hefty fine and jail time associated with non-compliance).
And designers have an understandable interest in keeping the focus during fashion shows on the clothes, not the people wearing the clothes; when models stand out, as they did during the supermodel era (Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, et. al. ) the gaze shifts from the clothes to the model. The purpose of a runway show is to showcase garments, full stop. Keeping models young, interchangeable, and so thin as to practically be invisible is a way to prevent that phenomenon of standout models becoming celebrities. (Then again, with the rise of social media, we’re entering another phase of models-as-celebrities, like Karlie Kloss, Cara Delevingne, Kate Upton, and all the Victoria’s Secret Angels who pop up on Taylor Swift’s Instagram.)
As for the age issue, young models are less likely to have any bargaining power; they won’t raise hell if, say, a designer opts to pay them in trade instead of money. And often designers or casting directors don’t bother to ask how old a girl is.
Even if the French legislation doesn’t pass — and considering some of its more problematic provisions, maybe that would be for the best — it’s a sign that the conversation around improving health standards in the fashion industry is growing louder every day. As it should. As Ziff said, “Models should be able to do their job without sacrificing their health or wellbeing.”