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

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

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."