From now on, models who want to work in France will first need to get a doctor's note to prove that they are healthy. Deputies in the National Assembly approved the measure on Thursday as part of an anti-anorexia package in France's new public health law.
Magazines and advertising companies will also be required to label images that have been "digitally altered," as well as those in which a model's silhouette has been made to look "thinner or wider."
"We're hoping that, with this legislation, we can put an end to what the British call 'anorexia chic'," said Olivier Véran, a French neurologist and former deputy who spearheaded the anti-anorexia amendments of the bill.
Officials hope that regulating the modeling and fashion industries will help promote wellness and health while boosting efforts to tackle eating disorders among female teenagers.
Those who don't comply with the provisions will face hefty fines and prison sentences.
A health certificate for models
Under the new law, models working in France will have to provide their employers with a medical certificate confirming their health is "compatible with the practice of the profession." Models and employers who fail to follow the provision face a 75,000-euro fine ($81,000) and up to six months in prison.
A previous version of the bill suggested setting a minimum Body Mass Index (BMI) — a value derived from an individual's weight and height — to ensure that models do not fall below acceptable weight standards.
According to the World Health Organization, anyone with a BMI under 18 — for example, a person measuring 5'6" and weighing 110lbs — is underweight. The average BMI of French women is 23. But this provision was scrapped in March after officials feared it could lead to discrimination in the hiring process.
The new version allows doctors to determine whether a person is fit for a modeling career by taking into account their BMI as well as other factors like gender, age, diet history, and the person's menstrual pattern — the latter because eating disorders can cause the loss of periods.
"It's not a war against slimness, but a war against malnutrition and the pressure that models are put under," Véran remarked. The former deputy said he was proud that France had taken legal steps to regulate the modeling industry, and hoped other countries would follow suit. The new requirements, he noted, would also apply to international models wishing to walk the runway in France.
When quizzed about the possibility that some models might try and circumvent the new laws with forged certificates, Véran said he trusted the medical profession to do its job.
"Once the law has been enacted and the implementation decrees have been issued, if we see a 5'11" model wearing size 6 clothes, there will be an evaluation," he said. "If it turns out [the model] was issued a false certificate, there will be sanctions."
The new legislation stipulates that any image featuring models who have been Photoshopped to look skinnier or fuller must be labeled "digitally altered." Those breaking the law will face fines of 37,500 euros ($40,600) or "up to 30 percent of the amount spent on the advertisement."
By imposing tighter controls on the fashion industry, officials are hoping to reduce the rate of anorexia. The eating disorder currently affects between 30,000 and 40,000 people in France — a majority of whom are teenage girls.
A 2008 survey by France's National Institute for Health and Medical Research found that 0.5 percent of French girls aged 12 to 17 were anorexic, along with 0.03 percent of boys in the same age group.
"A lot of sociological research shows that if the people teenagers look up to are abnormally thin, this will impact their desire to lose weight," said Véran. "It's an aggravating factor."
Websites that promote excessive skinniness and, in some cases, actively encourage eating disorders — which are often referred to by their pet names Ana (anorexia) and Mia (bulimia) — are on the rise.
An earlier version of the bill proposed banning such websites altogether and punishing those found guilty of pushing "prolonged dietary restrictions" with up to a year in prison and a 10,000-euro fine ($10,880).
But the amendment was eventually dropped after experts argued that outlawing a potentially useful platform for sufferers would be counterproductive. Many of these sites offer tight-knit support groups for sufferers, and criminalizing the forums could further undermine what is already a vulnerable group.
Fred Pailler, who co-wrote a study that assessed why banning these websites might not be such a good idea, told VICE News the sites did more than "just value anorexia."
"We've noticed that the conversations regulate themselves," he remarked in April. "The more these women communicate, the more they moderate each other."
The real challenge, he said, would be to figure out a way for the medical profession to interact with these online communities, "not in a prescriptive manner but with an approach that is conducive to listening and advising."
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