Gina Mei
April 07, 2015 5:45 am

Last week, France’s proposed Health Bill — which includes a law that would ban the use of “excessively thin” fashion models — won the majority vote in the National Assembly lower house of Parliament, and will now move on to the Senate. This is big news: following similar legislation in Spain, Italy, and Israel, the law is the first of its kind to so explicitly tackle body image in the fashion industry in France, and address its effects on society at large.

At its most ideal, the law is meant to combat negative body image and the prevalence of eating disorders both on the runway and off. As reported by BBC, “an estimated 40,000 people suffer from anorexia in France, nine out of 10 of them women and girls.” Given that France is a mecca for the fashion world, it is by no means a stretch that this intense pressure to lose weight comes in part as a result of the industry’s effect on the country — and the law takes big steps to address this. If passed, it would forbid any model with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of less than 18 to work as a catwalk model. Ads that have been Photoshopped to make models look thinner would be required to be labeled as such (. . . which is awesome). And a separate measure would make condoning anorexia a punishable offense. Modeling agents would face fines and up to six months in jail if they broke the law. It’s definitely serious business, and it’s compelling to see the industry’s problematic practices be taken to task at such a high level.

It’s no secret that the fashion industry has quite the diversity problem, particularly when it comes to representing different body types. According to a study by The Model Alliance, 64.1% of models have been asked to lose weight by their agencies, and nearly a third of models have suffered from an eating disorder. These are unacceptable statistics on so many levels, and precisely why France’s new law is so incredibly important — it allows us to critically examine an industry that rewards a very narrow view of beauty and promotes that beauty ideal to the masses. Hopefully, the law will help change the tides and broaden the scope — and we’re all for an initiative that wants to take down unhealthy body image.

That being said, the law is not without flaws. BMI is notoriously not a very reliable measure of health (it’s based on a ratio of height to weight, and doesn’t take other factors into account) — and it’s important to remember that what’s natural for some people might not be what’s healthiest for others. There doesn’t seem to be a ton of room to take into account those who are naturally thinner, and, at its worst, the law could be considered state-sanctioned skinny-shaming.

If the goal of the law is to help the country’s collective body image, there are probably better ways of doing it, too. As Vanessa Friedman pointed out in an op-ed for the New York Times, models aren’t necessarily the most influential people when it comes to our collective body image. Utilizing social media numbers as evidence, she went on to make the case that non-model celebrities probably have a greater influence on how we judge ourselves than models do — which is why fashion houses so often use actresses and musicians in their ads, and fashion magazines so often for their covers. It all feeds into the question of whether we can — or should — legislate any body at all.

“[I] think the fact that everyone refers to them as ‘girls,’ and not ‘women,’ is indicative of the uneven power structure of the industry, wherein models have the least control over their fate of any member of a shoot (anorexia being a disease of control),” Friedman said in her op-ed. “To be really effective in helping models, I think the lawmakers would also have to address employment issues beyond weight.”

Nonetheless, the idea behind the law is an essential first step in creating change within the fashion industry, and holds agencies and fashion houses alike accountable for the health of their models — which is incredibly important. Given how influential France is in the fashion world, this move could be monumental. The law has reignited a much-needed conversation on how we can best tackle what has become a huge problem; and how we can better work towards improving the way people of all ages view health and body image. Hopefully, the law encourages positive changes in the fashion community at large, and a more open-minded ideal of beauty on the runway for many seasons to come.

(Image via.)