France bans models who are too thin. Should US follow suit?

France just joined other countries in adopting a law making it illegal for agencies to hire models deemed 'too thin.' Is this a good step towards adopting a more realistic idea of body image?

Jacques Brinon/AP/File
Models wear creations for Saint Laurent's Fall/Winter 2015-2016 Ready to Wear fashion collection as part of Paris Fashion Week.

France has joined Italy, Spain, and Israel in banning models that are “excessively thin” in advertising campaigns or on catwalks.

The law, which passed on Friday, also details possible fines and imprisonment for modeling agencies and fashion houses who hire models who do not meet the required size. They can face imprisonment up to six months and fines of up to 75,000 euros ($82,000).

NBCNews.com reported on the measured standards of a model's body type in the legislation.

'The activity of model is banned for any person whose Body Mass Index (BMI) is lower than levels proposed by health authorities and decreed by the ministers of health and labor,' the bill said. The lawmaker behind the bill previously said models would have to present a medical certificate showing a BMI of at least 18, about 121 pounds for a height of 5.7 feet, before being hired for a job and for a few weeks afterwards.

This announcement comes at a time when public opinion toward body image is evolving. Unrealistic beauty standards are being criticized in many countries, and many are speaking out against supporting the fashion industry’s tendency to hire models that many say are too thin.

"This is an important message to young women, young women who see these models as an aesthetic ideal," health minister Marisol Touraine told France 24 back in March. "It's important for fashion models to say that they need to eat well and take care of their health."

In the United States, there are currently few regulations for models in the fashion industry. However, the industry may be responding to public opinion. Many consumers are actively looking for models and ideals that more accurately reflect a healthy, female body. This can be evidenced by the success of products such as the “Average Barbie,” a toy created by Nickolay Lamm with the body ratio of an average 19-year-old.

“[T]here was no doll on the market which is affordable and which is made according to realistic body proportions,” Mr. Lamm wrote in an email to the Monitor. “Many people criticize Barbie and there was no alternative. Now, I’ve made one – Lammily – and when little girls see her, hold her, they feel like they already know her because she is more like them and the people they know.”

Model agencies are starting to hire more models in a variety of body shapes and sizes. Earlier this year, plus-size model Tess Holliday signed with UK modeling agency MiLK Model Management. At five feet, five inches, and a size 22, she is the largest model to ever be signed with a major modeling agency.  

Northwestern University professor Renee Engelm said that Ms. Holliday still faces “fat-shaming,” but that her “self-confidence could be inspirational.”

“If Tess remains an outlier, little change is likely. It takes more than one model to start re-shaping how we think about women’s bodies,” Ms. Engelm said to the Monitor in an email.

Educator and author Amanda M. Czerniawski recently wrote in The Washington Post that modeling agencies want to represent plus-size models, but the fashion industry is not willing to hire them. In some instances, women that qualify as “plus-size” do not actually fall into that category, perpetuating the misrepresentation of how women look.

But, moving in the direction of representing women of varying shapes and sizes is a good step. Ms. Czerniawski points to Sports Illustrated’s inclusion of Robyn Lawley in their swimsuit edition, making Ms. Lawley the first plus-size model ever to be included.

“Modeling agencies have taken the first step. Now, companies and designers need to hire these models — women of all sizes. Sports Illustrated just took a step in this direction. Perhaps next time, it will take a leap.”

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