Legislating Health

France Takes Aim at Cult Of Thinness

A model showed off a Guy Laroche ensemble and her rib cage at a 2006 Paris showing.
A model showed off a Guy Laroche ensemble and her rib cage at a 2006 Paris showing. (By Remy De La Mauviniere -- Associated Press)
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By Molly Moore and Corinne Gavard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

PARIS, April 15 -- France, the country that defined haute couture, on Tuesday launched Europe's most aggressive assault yet on the promotion of ultra-thinness by the fashion industry, advertisers and Web sites.

The French National Assembly approved unprecedented legislation that would make the promotion of extreme dieting a crime punishable by up to two years in prison and fines of up to $47,000.

"It's time for public action against this scourge," said Valérie Boyer, the bill's author and a member of France's ruling party, who said that as many as 40,000 French people, mostly young girls and women, suffer from anorexia.

Some lawmakers, fashion industry representatives and advertisers criticized the measure, saying the courts should not be the arbiters of health or beauty.

"It may mean that we won't be able to publish anything," said Isabelle Maury, editor of France's Elle magazine. "I wonder how this bill will be implemented and interpreted. If they decide to strictly implement it, it could mean that every fashion show and magazine will be banned or charged."

Since the deaths of two anorexic Latin American models two years ago, European countries -- particularly those known for their fashion industries -- have faced pressure to better protect and regulate the health of fashion models and curb advertising that promotes unrealistic standards of beauty.

Spain has banned models with less than a specified body mass index. Last year, Italy barred girls under 16 from its runways and started requiring all models to present health certificates proving they do not suffer from eating disorders. New laws in Britain require models with anorexia or bulimia to prove they are being treated for the disorders before they can participate in London Fashion Week this September.

This month, the French fashion industry signed an agreement to combat anorexia by promoting healthy body images in advertisements and on Paris runways. But the agreement is nonbinding and sets guidelines rather than issuing requirements.

The bill that passed France's lower house Tuesday and now goes to the Senate would make it illegal to "provoke a person to aspire to excessive thinness by encouraging prolonged food limitations."

Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot said one of the bill's main goals was to stop harmful messages spread through Web sites that suggest ways to become ultra-skinny.

"Encouraging young girls to lie to their doctors, advising them on foods that are easier to regurgitate, and inciting them to beat themselves up each time they eat is not freedom of expression," Bachelot told legislators.

"These messages are death messages," she said. "Our country must be able to prosecute those who are hiding behind these Web sites."

"Fashion is not targeted by this bill," Didier Grumbach, president of the French Federation of Couture, said in an interview. "People who use the image of sick girls for advertising campaigns are."

But Boyer, the bill's author, said the legislation is intended to reach a wider array of offenders than the Web sites and could be used to target sectors of the fashion industry.

Maury, the fashion magazine editor, said: "A girl doesn't become anorexic only because she sees skinny models in magazines. Anorexia is linked to personal stories, genetics, family environment and psychological traumas. However, it doesn't mean that we don't feel concerned."

Both Maury and couture federation chief Grumbach said the fashion industry has stepped up efforts to protect the health of its models. Many critics of the industry contend it has not done enough, making the new law necessary. But others say the bill approved Tuesday is intrusive and will not solve the problem.

"It is more a display bill to ease people's consciences," said Jacqueline Fraysse, a Communist Party lawmaker who opposed the bill. "We will not support this dangerous approach."


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