France and the fashion industry: Skinny is so last year

Models wear creations for Saint Laurent's Fall/Winter 2015-2016 Ready to Wear fashion collection presented in Paris, as part of Paris Fashion Week. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)
Models wear creations for Saint Laurent’s Fall/Winter 2015-2016 Ready to Wear fashion collection presented in Paris, as part of Paris Fashion Week. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

France recently banned what it deems to be unhealthy, skinny models in the country’s fashion industry, following a trend set by other countries such as Italy and Spain. These countries have adopted similar codes of conduct for models.

A model is considered unhealthy if they have a body mass index (BMI) lower than 18, which means a 5-foot-6-inch model must weigh at least 121 pounds and holds a certificate from the government confirming that he or she is sufficiently “healthy” to work. The law also bans websites from encouraging viewers to “seek excessive thinness” and enforces both imprisonment, ranging from six months to a year, and fines ranging from approximately $82,000 to $110,000 for violation of these laws.

Some Americans may think that this law is problematic as the French government is restricting modeling agencies from hiring models who best suit their business. This violates our basic civil liberty of freedom from censorship. However, the French government is well known for heavily involving itself in the lives of its citizens and shows no signs of changing this political tendency anytime soon.

However, there are some issues regardless of political beliefs. One major issue with these laws is that BMI is hardly indicative of health. Any doctor will tell you that BMI provides a convenient, rough estimate of a weight range a person should likely fall into given the person’s height, age and sex. On one hand, most distance runners have BMIs that indicate they are extremely underweight. On the other hand, most body builders have BMIs that indicate they are obese. Clearly, in both instances BMI is an inaccurate way of determining health.

France will now levy punishments against modeling agencies that work with models who don’t weigh enough, rather than help models the government deems unhealthy. If the French government really wanted to help people with anorexia, it would set up better access to therapists and doctors instead of banning them from working in a particular industry. Making something illegal doesn’t eliminate a problem; people drank alcohol during Prohibition.

According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, in the last 15 years, the number of obese people in France doubled from one in 20 to one in 10, and now 40 percent of the population is overweight. It seems strange that France chooses to focus on its slighter problem of anorexia rather than the much larger problem it faces with obesity.

Even if we acknowledge that anorexia is a significant enough problem in France that the government needs to intervene and even if we acknowledge that the best way to alleviate this problem is by focusing on fashion models — both of which seem mistaken — restricting which models can work in the fashion industry based on their BMIs will fail to solve the problem of anorexia in any significant, lasting manner.