News / Health

    Banning Too-Thin Models: Right Move, Wrong Approach, Say Experts

    FILE- Models wear new creations for a fashion show in Paris, March 2015.
    FILE- Models wear new creations for a fashion show in Paris, March 2015.
    Alex Villarreal

    French lawmakers' move to ban ultra-skinny models is the right mission, but the wrong approach, say advocates in the fight against eating disorders.

    France's lower house of parliament Friday passed a measure that would forbid anyone with a body mass index (BMI)  below a certain level to work as a model.

    "In the bill, I suggest that from now on, a model must go through a medical visit before she is hired, which would evaluate the body mass index, which is calculated by dividing the weight over the height squared," said Olivier Veran, the Socialist parliament member behind the legislation.

    "I suggest that the medical certificate for work ability cannot be delivered to people who are undernourished and who, therefore, are putting their life and health in danger," he said.

    Fashion houses and modeling agencies could face a fine up to $85,000 and six months in prison if they defy the ban and continue to employ models deemed too thin.

    It is unclear what BMI would become the French standard. A similar measure regulating models in Israel mandates a BMI of 18.5 or higher. In 2006, Madrid Fashion Week organizers banned any model with a BMI below 18, after a 22-year-old model from Uruguay died of a heart attack attributed to anorexia.

    More than a number

    But Claire Mysko, Director of Programs for the U.S. National Eating Disorders Association, told VOA BMI is not an accurate measure of health.

    "Just because someone is at a very low BMI doesn't mean that they have an eating disorder, and just because someone's in the normal range or even in the high range of BMI doesn't mean that they don't have an eating disorder either," she said.

    Mysko said the intentions behind such legislation are "good," but what is really needed is a holistic screening process that includes an assessment of attitudes and behaviors toward food, weight and body image.

    She said the National Eating Disorders Association wants to see models screened for eating disorders and is also pushing for tests to be carried out in schools.

    "I think it's really important that we take eating disorders seriously," she said. "I am happy to see worldwide that there is a shift in that direction. I think we just need to be very careful and look at the effectiveness of these solutions."

    It is a position echoed by Katrina Mason, Policy Director at the Washington, D.C.-based Eating Disorders Coalition, which advocates recognizing eating disorders as a public health priority.

    "We know that there are a lot of different factors, and just measuring BMI isn't necessarily a good factor in determining whether someone is or is not having a disordered eating lifestyle," she said. "I think we would say that there are other factors that should potentially be taken into account."

    A health initiative the Council of Fashion Designers of America formed in 2007 to address concerns about underweight models says it also does not recommend using BMI to determine whether a model should be allowed to work.

    "Eating disorders are emotional disorders that have psychological, behavioral, social, and physical manifestations of which body weight is only one," reads a mission statement on the committee's web page.

    Public health effects

    It is not just the health of the models that is at stake. The move to put limits on the fashion industry is part of a broader crackdown in France, where up to 40,000 people are estimated to be suffering from anorexia.

    Earlier this week, French lawmakers approved a measure targeting websites that promote excessive thinness. Another amendment would require publications to let readers and viewers know when photos have been retouched.

    Mason says models' appearances and false advertising have "a profound effect on body image dissatisfaction" with research showing media exposure can be a contributing factor to disordered eating.

    Dr. Tania Heller, Medical Director of the Washington Center for Eating Disorders and Adolescent Obesity, said there has been much concern that the fashion industry has promoted "unhealthy and potentially dangerous behaviors."

    "Young women, and sometimes men, may try to emulate these dangerously-thin models and view them as an ideal--one which is for the most part unrealistic," she wrote in an email to VOA.

    The National Eating Disorders Association, or NEDA, says 90 to 95 percent of anorexia sufferers are girls and women. In the U.S., an estimated 30 million people -- 20 million of them women -- will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

    Dr. Heller said the move to put legislation in place that may prevent the promotion of unhealthy ideals is a step in the right direction.

    But NEDA programs director Mysko said screening is only one part of addressing the epidemic. "We want to make sure that once we identify that there is a problem, that people actually have good places to go to get specialized treatment."








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    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    by: Dave from: Savannah
    April 06, 2015 12:53 PM
    It's pretty easy to point fingers and blame others for why many people try to achieve an unrealistic body type. However, implementing permits, limits and laws that make business practice harder when there are other, more pressing problems such as obesity, is questionable at best. Instead of forcing companies by law, we should focus on creating a societal shift (many companies ARE changing) that persuades companies to stop touching up images and hiring super-skinny models.

    by: Pig from: Animal Farm
    April 06, 2015 12:42 PM
    Great, one more step in normalizing obesity. We get all up in arms over Bulimia and Anorexia, but not a word of shame to those who are clearly obese. They are 2 side of the same coin.

    by: Tommy Moore from: Hollywood CA
    April 06, 2015 11:55 AM
    Its illegal to force some one to get sick or to promote a false impression that to be a perfect woman you have to look or have a specific type of body. The only reason those types of models are accepted in the catwalk is because fashion designers hate women bodies, have you notice the difference between those models and the sport magazine models?

    by: John from: Smith
    April 06, 2015 4:03 AM
    1wow, so now it’s illegal to be slim, slender, thin? Pick your priorities, PLEASE. Sure, anorexia is problem. May I please point out an even BIGGER problem? It’s called obesity. For every anorexic that dies, a thousand obese people die. Anti skinny law(s) has all the flavor of, people that want double cheese burgers and super big gulps.

    by: james from: L.A.
    April 05, 2015 8:33 AM
    "What all 'experts' agreed on, however, is that yet another group of mentally ill people needed to be further stigmatized, shamed, and publicly banned from employment".

    by: Sam Norkeen from: New York City
    April 03, 2015 7:36 PM
    Banning over-thin women from modeling is a wonderful idea – it helps both the models and the public. However, the BMI is the wrong tool – it is too crude to be useful. For example, Asian women tend to have smaller frames than other races, so an Asian Model could be very fit and healthy with a BMI of 17.0. On the other hand, a very tall model (of any race) could have a BMI above 20 and still be anorexic; tall people have high BMIs regardless of body fat. The BMI is both obsolete and useless.

    I'm a mathematician and I've studied obesity for years. In my opinion, if you want to find your ideal weight, you should use better tests than the BMI. The waist to hips ratio and the waist to height ratio each give useful information, and gives a comprehensive, scientific analysis of weight and fitness. These tools are all superior.

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