France Bans Excessively Thin Models. Will We?
Eva Smite, BMA Models

How will the fashion world respond to France’s new legislation that closely monitors malnourishment in models? France, the epitome of elegance, glamour and sophistication who has given us fashion giants such as Chanel, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, has taken a stand for health over beauty, will we follow them?

French MP’s have stipulated that modelling agencies who are found to be employing models who are under a minimum BMI, yet to be defined, will be fined up to €75,000, and staff could face up to six months in prison. Photos that have been retouched are now required to have a tag stating what has been edited. Failure to abide by this Photoshop rule this could amount to a fine of €37,000, or up to 30% of the amount spent on the advertising featuring the model. They have also voted for legislation to be passed to make the glorification of anorexia online illegal, stating the maximum fine as €10,000 for encouraging and provoking dangerous behaviour. Considering France’s authority and respect in the fashion world, will the ruling affect the future of fashion? Will this legislation carry much weight and be effective in the prevention and assistance of eating disorders? Is our definition and appreciation of beauty finally changing?

Although France is not the first country to take measures against malnourishment in models, the legislation warrants celebration. In 2012, Israel took the same measures, banning the use of models with a BMI of below 18.5 and requiring that retouched images be noted. Italy and Spain have previously taken similar precautions, preventing models that are excessively thin from taking part in fashion shows. The World Health Organisation guidelines state that an adult with a BMI of below 18.5 is considered underweight, below 18 malnourished, and below 17 severely malnourished. The BMI of many models is below 16. I spoke to Farid Haddad, Director of “BMA Models” to hear what he thinks about France’s ruling. He stated, “I don’t think it will affect the future of fashion as the fashion industry will adapt as it does to trends. It may cause the French fashion industry to use models with a healthier body-image and the law may have some effect on the health of models.” In France 30-40,000 people suffer from anorexia, the majority of them teenagers. The unhealthy body image we accept and often aspire to needs to be adapted, as our idea of beauty is warped. We perceive beauty as being thin instead of being healthy. Diet fads are becoming increasingly popular; we are more concerned with losing weight and being thin than with being healthy and happy. We have been driven to think that our appearance is worth more than our happiness, that our appearance leads to happiness, even that it is the key to happiness.

Retailers, such as Debenhams, are beginning to campaign with and use larger-size models. It’s definitely a step in the right direction, however the label “plus size” that is stamped on to clothes and signs is anything but enticing for women who do wear a bigger size, it is demeaning and unnecessary. Tagging a person as too thin, curvy or plus size can have an effect on mental health, which is often a big factor in both weight loss and weight gain. These social labels can lead to eating disorders. One problem with France’s new legislation is that you can’t recognise conditions such as anorexia solely through BMI calculations. Eating patterns also need to be monitored. France’s rulings are merely the beginning. Further measures need to be taken to promote a healthy body image, but we need to be aware that what is healthy for one person is not necessarily healthy for another. Intimidating models battling with anorexia into gaining weight through legislation may not necessarily be healthy for them. We have to consider the repercussions of forcing models to become larger. This could lead to depression, or other mental illnesses. Producing better resources and more support for people with eating disorders is essential. It is unreasonable to assume that views on body image will adapt immediately.

While France is making progress, it seems that others are still projecting an unhealthy body image. Leading retailers regenerate the idea that skinny is beautiful, their mannequins are half the size of a real human, and their clothes are not consistent sizes. Urban Outfitters have been boycotted and criticised for selling clothes that promote eating disorders. One top that has engraved itself in my mind stated in bold print “Eat Less.” Urban Outfitters have also been called up on editing pictures of their models to an excessive extent, for example creating an unnatural thigh gap. By forming unattainable goals for people who aspire to this body image trend, retailers are in a way partly creating eating disorders.

This is not a new issue. There have previously been movements showing the effects of eating disorders and admonishing their glorification. Isabelle Caro was a French model and actress who campaigned against anorexia before dying of the illness at age 28. She worked with an Italian ad campaign, pictured at 27kg under the headline “No Anorexia.” Caro had wanted to display the horrific, life-threatening reality of battling with anorexia, and to encourage women and girls not to strive for her weight, not to admire her body. The shocking photo of her protruding spine has I’m sure inspired many other campaigns attempting to help promote healthy body image. Australian author and TV host Ajay Rochester has begun an online campaign calling on the fashion industry to “drop the plus” size in order to encourage retailers to stop labelling different body types and instead stock all sizes.

The response to France’s legislation has been mixed. Haddad agrees with the measures, “I am with the legislation as it is part of a campaign against anorexia which is a serious mental health condition.” Many believe it is the right objective, the right idea, but the wrong action. In the fashion industry some think it will create a disadvantage for France over the rest of the fashion world. But surely health is more important than fashion. Perhaps this should be a worldwide ruling for modelling agencies. It has been debated that using BMI to measure whether a model is malnourished is a controversial measurement, as it does not take into consideration muscle and body types. For me personally my engagement is not with the BMI measurement, it is with the fact that the French are taking a stand to eliminate this “eat less,” “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” culture we have bought in to.

Fashion is continuously progressing. This year at New York Fashion week we saw Jamie Brewer walk down the catwalk, the first woman with Down’s Syndrome to walk at the event. Designer Carrie Hammer stated she wanted the models to reflect the variety of bodies that would wear her line of clothing. Society is slowly moving towards a new beauty, a new form of acceptance without labels, and France is heading this movement towards health. When I asked Haddad whether he thinks France’s legislation will encourage a larger movement against unhealthy body image he commented “I think it will start a movement, yes. I think it will affect our definition of beauty, but at the end of the day beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” We are all the beholders, our idea of beauty is in our hands.

Isabel Gonzalez-Prendergast

About Isabel Gonzalez-Prendergast

Isabel is particularly interested in international literature, learning about different cultures and philosophies.

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