France—the fashion capital of the world that brought you Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and, inexplicably, sexy maid costumes—is cracking down on the fashion industry's long tradition of upholding unattainable ideals of beauty. Starting in October, all commercial images featuring Photoshopped models will have to bear the inscription "retouched photograph" or companies will face fines of €37,500 (nearly $41,000) per infraction.
The initiative is being roundly applauded for tackling a pernicious issue that not only affects models' health but consumers' psychological and emotional wellbeing. But a number of body image advocates and media professionals wonder how effective the measure can be. If ultra-thin, digitally retouched women are still gracing our screens and magazines, how does that change the beauty standards we measure ourselves up against?
Body image expert Dr. Nicki Karimipour told Motherboard that at the very least, "the digitally retouched label forces people to become more media literate."
"In my experiences working with girls and women, many of them do not know which images have been altered—and how," she explained. "If you have ever seen time-lapse videos or 'before and after' photos of how media images or ads are retouched, it can be mind-blowing. Limbs are lengthened, skin color is lightened, features like a woman's lips and eyes are totally exaggerated and the models often end up looking like cartoonish caricatures of themselves."
The decree comes as part of a two-pronged initiative that will also require models to present health certificates proving they're "healthy"—something's that's difficult to measure, as past attempts to assess models' health by measuring their body mass index (BMI) revealed. (In France, BMIs will be taken into account, but will not be the only metric by which health is determined).
A study conducted by the Model Alliance, a labor advocacy group for models, with researchers from Northeastern University and Harvard University found that 64.1 percent of a pool of models surveyed at New York's Fashion Week had been asked to lose weight by their agencies, while 48.7 percent routinely fasted or restricted their diets to lose weight quickly before gigs and 31.2 percent said they had eating disorders.
"Eating disorders are widespread in the modeling industry and the need for real change is clear," National Eating Disorders Association CEO Claire Mysko told Motherboard.
"In an environment saturated with images of ultra-thin women and muscular men, it's no surprise that people start engaging in dangerous behaviors in their attempts to achieve the levels of 'perfection' that advertising has falsely linked to happiness and success," she said.
However, Mysko's dubious the French decree can bring about reform. "There is no doubt that the glorification of the thin ideal and rampant retouching of models has damaging effects, yet it is unclear at this point whether France's mandate to label retouched advertisements will lead to positive change."
Karimipour is more optimistic. "I think that France putting forth these two decrees makes a strong statement to the global fashion and media communities," she said.
"France has long served as an epicenter for high fashion, so they seem to be leading the charge on this issue. I do hope the US will follow suit."
Subscribe to Science Solved It, Motherboard's new show about the greatest mysteries that were solved by science.