France Bans Underweight Models, But Is It Enough? We Asked a Doc

Under new legislation, agencies that allow models to work without being deemed healthy by an MD can be fined—or face prison time

France law bans underweight models: photo of a model surrounded by a crowd

(Photo: Imaxtree)

France now legally requires models working in the European Union and the European Economic Area to have a doctor certify that they are in good physical health—the latest pre-emptive measure to combat the growing concern of eating disorders in the industry.

Each doctor’s note will be valid for up to two years. Body mass index (BMI)—a calculation derived from comparing weight in relation to height—will be taken into account when determining the overall health for models over the age of 16. (According to the World Health Organization, anyone with a BMI less than 18.5 is considered underweight.)

“In a sense, the industry has to be protected from itself,” says Toronto psychiatrist Dr. Allan S. Kaplan, who has worked in the field of eating disorders for more than 30 years. “You’d be hard pressed to find another industry where the profit motive so trumps the well-being of the employees like it does in the fashion industry.”

The new French law was put into effect on Friday, but the bill has been in discussion for eight years, reflecting the longstanding recognition of the potential health risks for models—an issue that Kaplan has seen first-hand with some of his patients. Other nations, including India, Israel, Italy and Spain, have already enacted similar laws to barring the use of too-thin models.

Photoshopped images will get a new label 

French legislators also took action on Friday to help better inform consumers about the reality of many images seen in commercial advertisements.

An additional French decree now legally requires all Photoshopped images that appear in ads to be labelled photographie retouchée (retouched photograph). The disclaimer will be required on ads running in France starting October 1. However, The New York Times points out that it will not apply to editorial shoots in magazines or newspapers, which are arguably the most desirable campaigns for models in the industry.

Kaplan, who has seen the results of unrealistic body standards in his practice, says these types of labels are much needed.

“The industry needs to be taken to task for Photoshopping, which happens regularly. These are not human beings we’re seeing, they’re computer images and the consumer doesn’t know that,” he says. “To me, it’s an absolute example of false advertising.”

Serious consequences for lawbreakers 

Those that violate the new laws risk paying a hefty price, literally.

According to The Guardian, agencies who allow models to work without being certified as healthy by a doctor can be fined 75,000 euros ($112,264 CAD), and the staff responsible could get as much as six months in prison.

Those who fail to label retouched images once the law goes into effect in October won’t face jail time, but could end up paying a penalty of 37,500 euros ($56,132 CAD), or up to 30 percent of the final cost of the ad.

Fordham’s Fashion Law Institute founder Susan Scafidi told WWD that these penalties are what makes France’s law stand apart from similar legislation in Spain and Italy.

Critics raise concerns 

Some eating disorder experts, including Kaplan, say that laws like these are a step in the right direction, particularly since France is the fashion capital of the world. However, this is not a perfect fix.

For one thing, there has been some controversy over the use of BMI to calculate whether or not someone is healthy. The World Health Organization notes that BMI, which is solely based on height and weight, doesn’t take into consideration other important factors like body type, physical activity and gender.

According to Kaplan, BMI is the best indicator for overall nutrition, but only if the models are adults because the measurement system assumes adult height.

“It’s hard to even apply a BMI to a 16-year-old because their final height is not determined yet,” he says.

In addition, Kaplan says that having a clean bill of health stand for two full years is “absurd.”

“Making a doctor’s note valid for two years is also quite problematic,” he says. “A person can be deemed healthy at one point in time and then a year later, be very unhealthy.”

The Toronto psychiatrist says that in order to see real change in the fashion industry, there needs to be legislation that bars anyone under the age of 18 from working in modelling, and also mandates regular physical exams. As for what exactly ‘regular’ means? “More frequently than every two years, that’s for sure.”

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