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French Modeling Agencies Could Face Jail Time If They Hire Models With A BMI Of Less Than 18

Models walk on the runway in Paris CREDIT: AP PHOTO/REMY DE LA MAUVINIERE
Models walk on the runway in Paris CREDIT: AP PHOTO/REMY DE LA MAUVINIERE

The next Paris Fashion Week might look a little different if France moves forward with its effort to crack down on the glorification of anorexia.

The government is considering a piece of legislation that would prevent the fashion industry from hiring models who are deemed to be an unhealthily low weight, as well as target pro-anorexia websites that celebrate emaciated images of women. The country’s health minister has thrown her support behind the proposal.

“I think that by the end of 2015, we will no longer have anorexic models on the catwalk,” Olivier Veran, the French lawmaker spearheading the legislation who is also a medical doctor, told CNN this week.

Under Veran’s proposal, modeling agencies would only be allowed to hire models if their body mass index (BMI) is at least 18, the threshold for being considered underweight. Models would be subject to regular weigh-ins to ensure they’re not shedding too many pounds. And agency employees who violate those requirements could be subject to fines up to $79,000 and up to six months in jail.

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As a standard for determining healthy weight, BMI is certainly not without its controversies. Nonetheless, the proposal is garnering support in France and appears poised to pass. On Monday, Health Minister Marisol Touraine backed the bill, saying it’s important for models to set an example for the young women who look up to them “as an aesthetic ideal.”

The issue of too-skinny models hits close to home for France’s fashion industry. In 2010, model Isabelle Caro succumbed to her eating disorder at the age of 28. Caro had become somewhat of the face of anorexia in the country after she appeared in a shocking Italian advertising campaign illustrating what it means to be “dying to be thin.” She was about 60 pounds when she posed for those ads, and the New York Times described her arms and legs as “mere sticks” and her teeth as “seemingly too large for her mouth.”

Fashion industries in other countries have taken recent stands against anorexia, too. In 2006, the organizers in charge of Madrid Fashion Week became the first to ban underweight models. Italy and Israel have also adopted laws that require runway models to be above a certain BMI level.

Here in the United States, where anorexia is the most fatal mental health issue in the country, there haven’t been attempts to impose this type of sweeping ban. But there has been increasing backlash to unrealistic expectations for women in the media. Models are increasingly speaking out against the drastic Photoshopping of their bodies, while activists are pressuring magazines to refrain from using retouching and display a range of more realistic body sizes within their pages. Some fashion publications, like Vogue, have voluntarily adopted standards for their models that are similar to France’s proposed law.

Changing a culture that overwhelmingly communicates that skinny bodies are beautiful is no easy feat. Many women have already deeply internalized those messages, and they want to see thin models walking their runways and appearing on their television screens.

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“There’s a paradox at work here: Many women like looking at the very same images they feel hurt by,” Dr. Renee Engeln, a psychology professor at Northwestern University who studies media objectification and body image issues, told ThinkProgress last year. “We claim we want to see more realistic images, but we also like looking at beautiful people.”

But the fashion industry, which so often sets the terms of what’s considered to be stylish and attractive, is well-positioned to try. Research has confirmed that looking at fashion models can have a directly negative impact on young women’s self-esteem, particularly as models have been getting thinner at the same time as the average woman has been getting bigger.