France to Ban Super-Thin Models; Should the U.S. Follow Suit?

While the conversation about extreme thinness and the fashion industry’s standard of beauty is not new, a move by French lawmakers to ban excessively thin fashion models has reinvigorated debate about whether governments should play a role in helping the industry define its trend-setting ideals.

“We’re very excited that France is taking such a bold step,” said Shelly Dammeyer, administrative director of New York-based Eating Disorder Resource Center. “We hope it motivates [modeling] agencies in the U.S. to look at their practices and take the initiative to set healthier standards so that the government doesn’t have to get involved.”

The purpose of the bill — approved by the lower house of parliament last week — is to combat anorexia, according to Olivier Véran, the Socialist lawmaker who proposed it.

France will join Israel, Spain and Italy, which all have similar measures in place.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America proposed its own effort in 2007 to address what it calls “a global fashion issue” involving “whether some models are unhealthily thin, and whether or not to impose restrictions in such cases.”

“For many seasons now, the CFDA has consistently championed the well-being of models. Our CFDA Health Initiative is a series of recommended industry guidelines developed with experts,” said Steven Kolb, CEO of the CFDA. “Our approach has been to create change through awareness and education. The results of our work are evident on the runway and include efforts on proper nutrition and exercise.”

The French law proposes imprisonment of up to six months and fines of around $80,000 or more for violators.

France’s modeling industry — renowned for its global fashion influence — is largely against the law.

“This is very serious, to mix anorexia with models’ thinness. It is a misunderstanding of anorexia, which is an illness caused by psychological factors,” Isabelle Saint-Félix, secretary-general of SYNAM, the national union for model agencies, told AFP.

To determine who can work as a model, the law will use body mass index (BMI); a forthcoming statutory order will provide details regarding the minimum BMI.

Critics of the law also cite concerns that BMI, which uses only height and weight to measure body fat, is an inadequate determinant of a model’s health.

“BMI does not measure everything,” Dammeyer agreed. “There is a difference between thinness and anorexia, and you do have to be careful with the government defining what is healthy versus what is anorexic. However, having a minimum is helpful — it’s a good place to start.”

Dammeyer said she’s hopeful that the U.S. fashion industry will self-regulate before it’s too late.

“I would like to see modeling agencies here in the U.S. take greater responsibility for the people they employ,” Dammeyer said. “This includes a proactive stance toward a model’s health and well-being, emphasizing physical, emotional and psychological health.”

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