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France's ban on super-thin models: Who will it really help? (+video)

The ban, which moved a step closer to reality Tuesday, has been touted to reduce anorexia on the catwalk and improve women's self image. But those claims may only be true to a degree.

A plan to criminalize the use of dangerously skinny models in France could go a long way to root out anorexia in the multi-billion dollar fashion industry. It probably won't, however, have much of an impact on persistent notions of beauty that value thinness above all. 

The plan, which was voted by the French National Assembly last Tuesday as part of a sweeping health reform bill that now heads to the Senate, follows a similar 2013 ban in Israel. Spain and Italy both have voluntary industry standards against employing super skinny models. But it's the birthplace of haute couture that could inspire changes across the continent.

“If Paris is going to do it, all of Europe is going after them,” says Adi Barkan, a fashion photographer who spearheaded the law in Israel.

Still, while it’s hard to knock its intent – to fight anorexia within the fashion world – the French plan has its critics, and not just in the fashion houses that call it misguided. Some are skeptical about how rigorously it will be enforced or how effective will be, on its own, in curbing the disease. Those fighting anorexia say the law's provisions may only drive anorexics underground, where they will be harder to help. And skinniness will still reign supreme on the runways.

“It’s a slow-moving world,” says Eric Van Furth, an expert on eating disorders in the Netherlands. “Skinny is definitely not out.”

Anti-anorexia

The new law makes it illegal to employ women with a dangerously low body mass index (BMI). In addition to protecting models from anorexia, says Socialist lawmaker Olivier Veran, who pushed for the law, it can also play a preventive role.

“This will also help protect our adolescents at risk, because teenagers are under social pressure from the image these models convey to always be thinner and thinner,” Mr. Veran said after the amendment was passed earlier this month.

At least 40,000 in France are estimated to suffer from anorexia. And the true number probably is much greater, given the high incidence of under-reporting.

The fashion industry bristled at the ban, calling anorexia a mental illness, not something that can be treated by levying fines on fashion agencies.

But even proponents of the ban worry about its efficacy. BMI is a controversial measure of healthy or unhealthy eating and living. And just what the threshold will be has yet to be determined: the law leaves it to be determined later by the health and labor ministries. The bill's author originally suggested that the minimum BMI should be 18, which would set the minimum weight for a woman of 5' 9" (roughly the average model height) at 121 lbs.

While Dr. Van Furth, former president of the Academy of Eating Disorders, sees a minimum BMI as a positive step, he says that laws can backfire if they lead to complacency, especially if they aren’t enforced. “Some might say, now we have this legislation, what else do we need?”

In reality, he says, what is most needed is education and outreach. But the new law could put that further out of grasp. The bill bans pro-anorexia websites, for example – sites often run by people suffering from eating disorders, Van Furth says. In other words, it criminalizes those who should be receiving treatment.

And while the fashion industry sets some standards, it does not alone dictate notions of beauty. In the “Haut Marais,” in Paris, a neighborhood of boutiques that is overrun during Fashion Week, Charles Userovici notes that the models employed by designers are just one part of the beauty industry. The law would have to go much further to root out women's desire to be ultra-thin, he says, sitting at his desk amid racks of raincoats and women’s suits. “You would also have to control the models employed to sell cars, or cellphones.”

Really healthy?

The law in Israel, which was the first of its kind, shone a global spotlight on anorexia, says Mr. Barkan. And the same is already true in France. While the sweeping health bill tackles a host of issues from obesity to tobacco use and binge drinking, the ban on anorexic models has generated far more headlines. 

Both laws also include restrictions on photoshopping images. In France, under the new plan, images must be labeled if they are "touched up."

But much of the work to recalibrate notions of beauty in Israel has occurred at the grassroots level, mostly through Barkan's "Simply You – Monitoring Body Image Perception" organization. It uses Facebook and other social media to shame companies that utilize or pressure women into unhealthy weights.

The organization has also started a “Real, Unreal” campaign, which includes a “real” stamp for companies that follow Israel’s ban on underweight models. They want it to become a global standard, like a green stamp for organic produce.

In an age of obesity, Barkan says he often hears that his campaign is focused on the wrong problem. His aim? To show a diversity of sizes, all within the range of normal. He said that the French law will help toward that end.

His supporters agree that this sort of change is possible. Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Madrid was the first to implement a ban on the models that walk down their runway, in 2006. Its director, Leonor Pérez Pita, says that any move to use healthier-sized women creates in turn healthier role models. And the effect of doing so in France should not be underestimated.

“France is the grandmother of fashion shows,” she says. “If that is taken as a general rule or law it would be tremendously positive for other countries.”

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