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Can France Rein in Anorexia in Its Modeling Industry?

How will France's new regulations on models' weight affect a growing population of people with eating disorders?
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Models walk the runway during the Allude show as part of the Paris Fashion Week on October 7, 2015, in Paris, France. (Photo: Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)

Models walk the runway during the Allude show as part of the Paris Fashion Week on October 7, 2015, in Paris, France. (Photo: Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)

In France last week, a bill was signed into law requiring that models show their employers a doctor's note certifying they're of a healthy weight. Models who don't comply with the new law are subject to six months in jail and a fine of up to €75,000 (or $81,500).

The statute also demands that magazines explicitly indicate any photographs that have been altered with an editing program, like Photoshop. Publications that refuse to do so can face fines of €37,500 ($40,700), or can be fined for 30 percent of the funds spent on the advertisement.

This new law has been a long time coming. In April, lawmakers first submitted a version of the bill, which suggested that models must adhere to a minimum body mass index of 18. By contrast, this latest (successful) version only calls for doctors to make their best judgment on a model's health.

It's not just France's professional models who are cause for concern. Studies have shown that, out of all Western Europeans, French women have the lowest BMI, at 23.2. With 11 percent of French women considered "extremely thin," the government has spent the better part of 2015 trying to curb its anorexia epidemic. In March, the country passed legislation criminalizing "pro-anorexia" and "thinspiration" websites, promising to slap perpetrators with a €10,000 fine ($10,800) and one year in prison.

With 11 percent of French women considered "extremely thin," the government has spent the better part of 2015 trying to curb its anorexia epidemic.

France isn't the first country to impose such a law. In 2012, Israel banished too-thin models from starring in advertisement photos. Similar measures were undertaken in Spain and Italy in 2006, where underweight models are now prohibited from walking the catwalk in fashion shows.

Could the United States make a similar crackdown? It's difficult to make such predictions for an industry that's riddled with so many brutal facts. Some 68 percent of models in Los Angeles and New York claim to suffer from anxiety and depression, according to one study. Meanwhile, 64.1 percent have been explicitly asked to lose weight by an employer, and 31.29 percent are suffering or have suffered from eating disorders. And while models in the U.S. rarely disclose their BMIs, we know that former American supermodels Tyra Banks and Rebecca Romijn had BMIs under 18—a major contrast with the average American woman's 26.5.

And this has impacts that reach beyond the modeling industry. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reports that 47 percent of girls between the ages of 10 and 18 feel pressured by what they see in magazines to lose weight. Of that same age group, 69 percent felt that their perception of the "perfect body" was defined by images of fashion models.

Back in 2008, we saw French model Isabelle Caro struggle to bring attention to the brainwashing effects of the fashion industry with her book The Little Girl Who Didn’t Want to Get Fat. Yet, not long after it was published, Caro, who weighed only 55 pounds, died from her debilitating anorexia.

Perhaps it's because the U.S. has never had a Caro that eating disorder advocacy groups have been largely unsuccessful in attracting lawmakers' attention, despite the fact that 30 million Americans struggle with some kind of eating disorder, and 40 to 60 percent of high school girls are on some sort of diet. Over the past few years, bills demanding research, funding, public screening services, and educational resources haven't been able to make it past the House floor.

Advocacy initiatives within the U.S. fashion world have been just as futile—or maybe they're just not trying at all. The Council of Fashion Designers of America has a series of nebulous-sounding guidelines posted on its website that basically say to designers and agents, well, use your best judgment.

All of this speaks to how, historically, in the media, France and the U.S. have dealt with anorexia in very different fashions. In the U.S., anorexia became a hot-button issue in the '90s and early 2000s, when made-for-TV films on the matter became required viewing in high school health classes across the country. With the role that social media plays in our everyday lives, the matter seems to have once again entered the public consciousness. More and more publications are examining the effects of social media on body image. Last year, ChildLine discovered that the number of people with eating disorders has grown by 110 percent since 2011. On YouTube, nearly one-third of all anorexia-related videos are considered "pro-anorexia," according to researchers, and one recent study found that adolescent girls who routinely post selfies are more susceptible to body anxiety, dieting, and idealizing thinness.

In France and the U.S. alike, social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are portals to pro-anorexia communities. Widespread "challenges," like the collarbone challenge, the belly button challenge, and the thigh-gap challenge, encourage extreme weight loss among young women, creating a virtual universe where women compete for likes and favorites based on their ability to achieve a certain level of thinness.

So is it imaginable that France's new restrictions will be able to reform an entire industry? Will they flip the Western idealization of beauty on its head? It's true that in both the U.S. and France, where thinness and vanity are ingrained societal obsessions, it's going to take more than a doctor's note to stave off an anorexia crisis. But still, it's a step in the right direction.