France Moves to Crack Down on Ultrathin Models

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Iris Van Harpen Fall 2015 Paris Fashion Week Photo: Victor Boyko/Getty Images

According to a new law passed today by the French parliament, modeling agents and fashion houses that hire excessively thin models will be subject to fines and even jail time. The law, which still needs final approval, requires models to present a bill of health with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of at least 18. In 2006, Spain was the first country to pass such legislation, requiring models to have a BMI of 18 to walk in Madrid’s Fashion Week. Italy and Israel followed suit with mandates that models maintain a BMI of at least 18.5.

“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 reads. Models will be required to submit to health evaluations.

The initiative is part of President François Hollande’s effort to crack down on anorexia. The French Parliament also passed a separate measure that makes it illegal to condone anorexia, which will presumably shut down numerous pro-eating-disorder blogs. Despite its shortcomings, many hailed the measure as a step in the right direction. Unsurprisingly, the National Union of Modeling Agencies complained that it would negatively affect the competitiveness of French modeling.

While the law imposes serious punishments — fines up to 75,000 euros and prison sentences as long as six months — the use of BMI as a measurement introduces complications, and the possibility that some in the industry could cheat the system.

The validity of BMI as a measure of health has long been disputed. A 2010 study of 10,000 people showed that BMI was not a good indicator of cardiovascular risk or mortality. BMI has proven to be especially inaccurate for people who are very fit; accordingly, an ultrathin model with a high muscle mass or high bone density may be able to score an 18, even if she lacks enough body fat to be considered healthy. And BMI measurements aren't fine-tuned enough to determine if someone is naturally thin or suffering from an eating disorder.

Back when the legislation was introduced, Hadley Freeman wrote a piece for The Guardian — “I Had Anorexia, But Not Because I Wanted to Look Like a Fashion Model” — in which she disparaged the latest attempt at regulation for failing to address the real causes of eating disorders. While acknowledging the legislation is long overdue for the sake of models themselves, she pointed out how poorly such laws have been enforced in other countries and articulated how inadequately they address the complex causes of eating disorders. She warned such legislation will barely impact rates of eating disorders across the country, writing, “It’s hard to deal with complicated issues — far easier just to obsess about fashion models.”