Proud2Bme | France’s Ban on Underweight Models: Misguided Mistake or Long-Overdue Change?

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France’s Ban on Underweight Models: Misguided Mistake or Long-Overdue Change?

Sarah and Angela, two of our Proud2Bme bloggers, share their views on France's new law requiring models to meet a minimum BMI. 

Trigger warning: Article includes numbers related to clothing sizes and BMI. 
 

A Problematic Piece of Legislation

By Sarah Haviland--The culture of modeling can pose potential dangers. The deaths of models like Isabelle Caro from anorexia emphasized the health hazards that models can face. Therefore, at first, France’s law that models have to have a BMI of at least 18 may seem admirable. France’s law aims to set a standard so that models stay healthy and their BMIs do not go below a certain threshold.

However, it is easy to put the blame on models for their low weights. People may think that models exercise excessively or limit their food intake in order to maintain a thin frame. In reality, models are often subject to pressures outside of their control. In her insightful video, model Iskra Lawrence explains that BMI standards and sample sizes are the root of the problem.

By solely addressing the models’ BMIs, the French government is not taking into consideration other factors that may have sparked the need for the law. The French government is not thinking about the institutional problems that have, in some cases, produced models with low BMIs, and does not understand that the concept of BMI is not as simple as it seems.

A low BMI does not automatically indicate unhealthy behavior; it would be wrong to punish a model for something that she did not decide to do. BMI is a complex concept. Society and the field of medicine generally view both extremes of the range of BMIs, whether low or high, as a negative indicator. Our first instinct is to think of how we can directly “fix” those with low or high BMIs.

It seems logical that the French government would think that setting a minimum BMI for models could incentivize healthiness. However, there is one big problem with this rhetoric: BMI extremes are not always the result of unhealthy habits. Iskra Lawrence notes that models who have naturally fast metabolisms can have a low BMI. Taking away privileges from models for something that is out of their hands is a form of body-shaming. By doing so, they are telling the models that, regardless of the reason why they have a certain BMI, it still has to be higher—this amounts to criticizing them for who they are. While France’s law might seem like an enlightened move, the message behind it is damaging.

The current definition of sample sizes increases the risk that models will develop eating disorder behaviors; instead of legislating body sizes, legislators should take a look at sample sizes. As Iskra Lawrence says, models are forced to make themselves fit into the sample sizes that designers give to them. If models only have clothing between sizes 0 and 4 available to them, then they have to find some way to be in that range. If models were to refuse to fit in the sample sizes, then they would not be able to keep their jobs. Models have to succumb to the will of the industry and maintain low BMIs in order to keep working. This mindset may lead to actions such as restricting food intake and engaging in dangerous levels of exercise.

The narrow parameters set by the limited range of sample sizes means that models have no choice but to adopt eating disordered behaviors in an effort to reduce their BMI. When the French government decided to take action against principles endemic in the modeling industry, it should have focused on sample sizes. By requiring a wider range of sample sizes at fashion shows, France would have endorsed a healthier modeling culture in which more shapes are accepted. Instead, France has chosen ignore one of the root causes of the problem failing to legislate the issue of sample sizes.

France’s BMI law may seem like a step in the right direction, but it does not target the correct parts of the modeling world. France’s BMI law punishes models with naturally slim shapes and ignores a major reason why models feel compelled to lose weight. It is easy to focus on what is obvious—that some models may have a low BMI. However, in order to effect real change, France has to enact a law that encourages body positivity in all aspects of the modeling industry and gets those at the top to rethink the morality of their practices. 

A Much-Needed Change  

By Angela Hui--Last December, France’s National Assembly passed a bill banning modeling agencies and fashion brands from hiring “excessively thin” models.

Although a previous version of the bill proposed a ban on models below a certain BMI (body mass index), the final draft declared that doctors will take into consideration weight, age and body shape when determining whether a model is too thin. Additionally, photos that are digitally altered to change a model’s size will have to be labeled as such.

I concede that this law is not going to end eating disorders or body image issues; although mainstream media has an undeniable influence on societal and individual beauty standards, eating disorders are complex diseases with countless causes and risk factors, only one of which is exposure to underweight models. Nonetheless, I believe that this law is long overdue and that it is undeserving of most of the criticism it has received.

Negative responses to France’s new “skinny model” law have been rampant. Many have expressed concern that this law will drive fashion shows and shoots out of France. Some, such as stylist Simon Gensowski, complained that the law is “body-shaming women with eating disorders” and suggested that it would be preferable to “reconsider current sample sizes.” Similarly, model Iskra Lawrence of Runway Riot agreed that sample sizes need to change and argued that banning models for weighing too little discriminates against those who are naturally slender and places an undue emphasis on BMI as an indicator of health.

First of all, those who are naturally thin will likely still be able to model even if they have BMIs that happen to fall in the “underweight” category because, as stated above, doctors will be able to take their body types and other individual factors into account. I do agree that BMI is a very imperfect tool, but in this case arguments over the validity of BMI are irrelevant as models will be evaluated holistically instead of simply being forced to adhere to an arbitrary weight threshold.

Secondly, the idea that this law is “body-shaming women with eating disorders” is absolutely unfounded—especially since many people with eating disorders are of an average or above average weight. As someone who has suffered from an eating disorder that made me lose weight, I know that being criticized for being too thin can be irritating and sometimes hurtful. But this law isn’t shaming models for their thinness; it’s telling them that if they are objectively too skinny they need to become healthier if they want to model. In fact, this law really isn’t directed at individual models so much as the French fashion industry itself: it is agencies and brands that will be penalized for hiring excessively skinny models, so hopefully industry standards will adapt in the face of this new legislation.

Thirdly, a quick tangent: the very notion of “skinny-shaming,” or mocking thin people for their weight, is rather misconceived. Yes, being told to eat a sandwich or grow some curves can be annoying at times. After all, it’s rude to make unsolicited comments about someone’s body, regardless of their size. But it is nothing compared to the way society treats fat people. Fat shaming is a systemic problem; fat people are denied jobs, fired, constantly mocked and dehumanized, and taught to hate themselves—to feel disgusting and worthless—simply because of their weight. “Skinny shaming” and fat shaming are both unpleasant, but at the end of the day society still tells us that “skinny” connotes happiness and beauty while “fat” equals laziness and lack of desirability. Therefore, to claim that France’s new law is “body-shaming” anyone is completely ridiculous.

Fourthly, the possibility that banning underweight models will impede the French fashion industry is simply a risk that France will need to take in the name of social responsibility. By almost exclusively featuring extremely thin models in fashion shoots and shows, the modeling industry has created a set of physical expectations and ideals that are impossible for most people to achieve naturally; in the United States, the average model is thinner than 98% of American women.

Italy, Spain and Israel have all passed similar laws banning excessively thin models. Now that France, the home of big-name fashion brands like Chanel, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, has outlawed the use of unhealthily underweight models, hopefully other countries—like the United States—will follow suit. As more countries begin to legislate underweight models, the fashion industry will be forced to change its standards, which in turn will lessen the pressure on both models and the general public to conform to unhealthy expectations.

Finally, I concur with Gensowski’s and Lawrence’s views on samples, the garments that are made available to use in fashion shoots. Clothes aren’t made to fit models; models are selected to fit sample sizes, and because sample sizes are so small, models must be extremely thin. However, I believe that legislation banning the use of excessively thin models will be exactly the catalyst the fashion industry needs to increase its sample sizes.

Even though a prerequisite for individual models is to fit into sample sizes, the sizes are small because thin models as a collective have grown to dominate the fashion industry. Waiflike models have become the norm in high fashion largely because thin bodies are thought to best show off the artistic work of fashion designers; when clothing is draped on a flatter, more linear body, it becomes easier to see the uninterrupted lines and features of the design. Slender models are also common in commercial fashion because clothing without built-in shape (e.g., curved seams and darts for the waist and bust) is less expensive to mass-produce and is believed to look best on models with slim builds. But if emaciated models can no longer be featured, the fashion industry’s hand will be forced, and sample sizes will have to change.

Although it will be difficult to challenge standards that have been in place for so many years, designers may find the public more receptive to their clothing if it is made to fit and flatter average-sized bodies. When Aerie, the intimate apparel brand of American Eagle Outfitters, “challenged supermodel standards” by keeping its ads unretouched, the brand received an outpouring of positive feedback and sales increased by nine percent.

France’s new law is not an indictment of naturally thin models, but a necessary piece of legislation to help put an end to the societal idealization of skeletal bodies.

What do YOU think? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
 

About the bloggers: Sarah Haviland is a freshman at Haverford College. She intends to major in political science and minor in psychology. She loves singing way too often, overthinking, Amy Schumer and horseback riding.

Angela Hui is a senior at San Francisco University High School. She previously attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. In her spare time, she enjoys helping others recover from their eating disorders and promoting positive body image as a moderator at EDRecoveryProbs.com.

For more on body image, check out:

6 Quarter-Life Realizations About Body Image (as Illustrated by “Friends”)

5 Ways to Give Kids a Confidence Boost

Ending the Silence Around Bullying

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