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France turns to fines, jail to combat ultrathin ideals

Passed by the lower house of parliament Tuesday, it makes the promotion of 'excessive thinness' a crime punishable by fines of up to $78,000.

By Lisa AbendCorrespondents of The Christian Science Monitor, Susan SachsCorrespondents of The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 2008

Image conscious: French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot (r.) signed a seperate agreement last week with French fashion houses to promote healthier body images.

Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images


Madrid and Paris

A young woman with flagging self-worth, she already had enough to grapple with in Paris, where fashion dictates ultrathin ideals.

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"I've lost 12 kilos [26 pounds], but I feel heavy," wrote a blogger identifying herself only as Leila this month in an online journal devoted to her eating disorder. "Heavy, and at the same time, empty."

But the fact that Leila's blog advocates anorexia has made her something of an outlaw overnight. On Tuesday, France's lower house of parliament passed a bill that makes it a crime to promote "excessive thinness" or extreme dieting.

Coming on the heels of related initiatives in Spain and Italy, the ban is the latest and most far-reaching attempt to stem a disorder – and an image of womanhood – with which hundreds of thousands of Europeans wrestle. But how effective will the measures – and some are quite creative – be?

France's bill, which must now be approved by the Senate, won unanimous support from Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP party, empowers judges to punish with prison terms and fines of up to €45,000 ($72,000) any publication, modeling agency, or fashion designer who "incites" anorexia. It also allows for the prosecution of websites whose pages and blogs, like Leila's, promote eating disorders.

On these sites, young women chart behavior associated with anorexia, in which individuals driven by a deep-seated fear of weight gain deprive themselves of food, and bulimia, characterized by binge eating and purging. The sites – part of a growing genre of sites that glorify destructive eating patterns – offer encouragement, contests, and tricks for those attempting to starve themselves.

"The sociocultural and media environment seems to favor the emergence of troubled nutritional behavior, and that is why I think it necessary to act," said Valery Boyer, the lawmaker who proposed the bill, in an interview with the Associated Press.

Several prominent French families, including former President Jacques Chirac's, have raised awareness of the issue by going public about their anorexic daughters' struggles.

But the problem is hardly limited to France. "The rates of anorexia and bulimia are fairly constant across Europe and the United States," says Eric van Furth, clinical director of the Center for Eating Disorders Ursula in the Netherlands and former president of the Academy of Eating Disorders. "Genetics plays a significant role, but the environment – and that includes culture – helps determine whether those genes are expressed."

In Spain, where some experts say that eating disorders affect 1 in 200 young women, the country's major fashion show provoked controversy two years ago when it tried to address the issue. Banning from the catwalk models with an unhealthily low body mass index (or BMI – a weight to height ratio) of below 18, the vicecouncilwoman for the Economy in Madrid's regional government, Concha Guerra, said, "Our intention is to promote good body image by using models whose bodies match reality and reflect healthy eating habits."