Policing the runway

It’s unusual for fashion and politics to collide, so when they did in France last Friday, shockwaves were sent through the fashion industry. The culprit? A Bill passed in the lower house of the French parliament banning modelling agencies from hiring models that are “too skinny”. The new law is comprehensive and has three main components. Firstly, employing “skinny” models (under a certain BMI) could lead to imprisonment for 6 months or up to a 75,000 euro fine. The second prong of the law seeks to tackle the pro anorexia websites that have become so present in the formation of the problem. The penalty for this is up to a year in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 euros. Finally, a disclaimer must now be used if an image has been photoshopped.

These are not new ideas and very similar provisions are already in place in Israel after the idea was initiated (surprisingly, from within the industry) by fashion photographer Adi Barkan. However, the law has only been in force since late 2014 so it is difficult to detect just how effective the measures have been. The greater noise made by the passing of the French bill is attributable to its jurisdiction, the fashion capital of the world.

The inclusion of a criminal sanction demonstrates just how seriously France is taking the issue. Spain and Italy have regulations that can be voluntarily undertaken but civil liability isn’t included let alone the possibility of prison. Whilst I agree that the attitude towards eating disorders in the fashion industry needs to change, criminalising people who are doing their job seems extreme. One modelling agency commented that the designers send the measurements they need and that they simply comply so maybe the changes need to literally go back to the drawing board.

Many legal debates hinge on the same issue – where do you draw the line? What is too skinny? The former editor of Vogue Paris, Carine Roitfield has stated that; “In my 10 years, I never put a girl that was too skinny on the cover of Vogue”. That may be true in her eyes and in the eyes of many others but by the standards of different people every girl on her cover may have been too skinny. This is the core danger of criminalising such an issue – it is entirely subjective. The French solution to this is to use a BMI of 18.5 as a benchmark for being too skinny. This is problematic in itself as by making it a quantitative assessment of what is too skinny there is great potential for under and over inclusiveness. People who are naturally thin will be deemed unfit to work when in reality there is no cause for concern. Heidi Klum previously advocated a similar sentiment; “Some people are born skinny and that’s just the way it is. You can’t point a finger at them and say they’re ill or anorexic. It isn’t fair to people born that way”. In contrast, someone may be suffering from anorexia yet have a BMI slightly over 18.5, thus leaving them unaccounted for. The issue is not black and white so I would argue that the starting point of a medical examination should be maintained but that other signs of eating disorders should also be looked for, such as loss of hair and teeth problems. It should not simply be a weigh in.

It may seem superficial to consider the economic impacts of such a sensitive issue but they need to be addressed. By restricting French models in this way, the models will consider themselves to be at a disadvantage to their thinner competitors. From this perspective, all this law does is remove an element of competition from the global modelling industry. A level playing field is needed and France’s National Model Agency Union Synam said that a European approach was essential. In addition, being medically certified to model could prove to be a logistical nightmare. It is also unclear how often such an examination will need to be undertaken, potentially rendering the measures useless if they are not conducted with some degree of regularity.

Taking this and many other factors into consideration it is questionable whether the measures will be an effective remedy. Weight is subject to manipulation and models may find ways to skirt around the issue by gaining enough weight to reach the golden number of 18.5. This breeds a culture of obsession with weight further that deepens the issue rather than solves it. Furthermore, the causes of anorexia are incredibly complex. Beat states that a mixture of genetic, cultural and biological factors can play a part in causing anorexia, therefore, it is arguable that the issue is in fact beyond the control of the modelling industry. However, the provisions are well intentioned and strive to deliver a positive message and with Paris being renowned as the capital of the fashion world this move might well spearhead a global revolution in the battle against eating disorders in the fashion industry.

Image: Flickr