In France, you can now be jailed for employing extremely thin models

So what’s your BMI?
So what’s your BMI?
Image: AP Photo/Christophe Ena, file
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The French parliament has passed a measure that bans modeling agencies and fashion brands from employing models the government deems too thin. Now models will be required to present medical documentation of a body mass index (BMI) of at least 18, Reuters reports. (In 2009, the average French woman’s BMI was 23.2.) People who employ models who fail to meet the requirement could face six months in prison and a fine of €75,000 ($82,417).

The amendment, which passed today, is part of a larger effort to combat eating disorders in France. Health minister Marisol Touraine has said the law aims to protect not only the health of models themselves, but also that of young women who try to emulate them. Parliament passed an amendment earlier this week targeting websites that encourage “excessive thinness” and unhealthy eating restrictions.

These efforts face an uphill battle, given the ubiquity of images of very thin models and actresses. Social media platforms such as Tumblr and Instagram are rife with “thinspiration.” And while many sites and platforms have policies discouraging or banning these disturbing images and messages, some people argue that they could hold some value for women with eating disorders seeking social support and self-expression online.

Other countries and organizations have attempted similar regulations. Both Italy and Israel have issued BMI requirements. In New York, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) has formed a committee and hosted events for discussing and promoting healthier lifestyles for models—and healthier body images for those who admire them—but the ”guidelines” are fairly nebulous, beyond age requirements for runway modeling and curfews for minors.

The CFDA’s effort is about awareness and discussion, rather than legislation. On one hand, talk is cheap, especially when the editors and designers participating are among those who continue to put very thin models on their magazine pages and runways.

On the other, the less draconian approach acknowledges that something as overly simplistic as BMI—which is calculated based simply on weight and height—may not account for personal differences in muscle, body type, and metabolisms. Sara Ziff, the founder of the Model Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit that aims to organize models and improve their working conditions, rejects BMI as an indicator of a model’s health. “It is unfair and unreasonable to ban healthy models from working just because they have a relatively low BMI,” she told Think Progress.

As far as protecting France’s impressionable young women from harmful eating disorders, The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman asserts that to blame a mental illness such as anorexia on a “silly” desire to resemble fashion models amounts to condescension and sexism. Freeman draws a line between body image issues—which might be helped by healthier models, were these laws to be effective—and eating disorders, which likely will not be.

And the discussion going on in France has focused on young women, rather than young people in general. But one look at the men’s runway of a designer such as Saint Laurent’s Hedi Slimane will tell you that excessive skinniness knows no gender.