"Too thin" may soon be defined in France by judges who would be asked to enforce new legislation aimed at websites, blogs and fashion advertising that encourage eating disorders among girls.
The fate of the legislation will be decided in coming weeks by the French Senate after it was passed Tuesday by the National Assembly. The measure is backed by President Nicolas Sarkozy's government.
Fines of up to $47,000 and a two-year prison term would be imposed on people who compromise a person's health by encouraging individuals through advertisements, products or methods of losing weight to aspire to "excessive thinness." It would be left to judges to evaluate what that means in each case. The fine and prison sentencing would be higher if a person ends up at risk of death or dies after following a restrictive eating regimen.
In this epicenter of haute couture, fashion editors and designers were reacting with care to this legislation that has been broadly directed at them.
"Maybe a law, as a cautionary warning, can help with change if blogs about anorexia incite young women to be dangerously skinny and if models look too scary on the runway," said Michelle Fitoussi, a columnist for the French Elle. "We have to be vigilant about that."
But she had a hard time imagining French authorities busting into dressing rooms before Paris fashion shows and handcuffing stylists and designers as they tuck scrawny models into their clothes.
"We have to be aware in all parts of society, not just in fashion, to stop girls from being on a very hard diet," she said. "Anorexia is a very real and complicated disease. Even the experts don't completely understand it."
French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier was quoted in the newspaper Liberation last week similarly questioning how the law would get at the complex issues behind extreme dieting and thinness. "You don't solve that kind of problem with laws but with understanding," he said.
But lawmakers and government officials have said explicitly that they want the trendsetters, fashion media and advertisers involved in this battle against a distorted view of health and beauty. Last week leaders of the French fashion industry signed a voluntary agreement to promote "healthy body images" and fight anorexia.
Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot opened the debate Tuesday on the floor of the National Assembly by describing the growing problem of even detecting eating disorders, never mind preventing them. She said the media had to take some responsibility for a culture that encourages them.
Bachelot specifically blamed websites that promote what is referred to as the "pro-ana" movement, which elevates anorexia to a "lifestyle" choice rather than characterizing it as a disease. It is estimated that as many as 40,000 people in France are anorexic.
In 2006 the international fashion world was shaken by the deaths of two models, one Uruguayan, the other Brazilian. They had literally starved themselves to death, the Uruguayan by living on a diet of lettuce and soda, the Brazilian by eating only apples and tomatoes for three months.
That year, stick-thin models were banned from Madrid's week of designer runway shows.
The French fashion world didn't enforce a similar ban. But last year France stopped a controversial clothing advertisement from running on billboards and in publications because it featured an ultra-thin model who had written a book on her battle with eating disorders.
Authorities have also been concerned about popular websites such as Ma Bimbo, based in France, which attracts tweens and has them play a virtual game that promotes plastic surgery, aggressive dieting and use of diet pills. The English-language version of the site posted a note Wednesday saying that after the "rather surprising media attention we have decided to remove the option of purchasing diet pills from the game."
Still other sites encourage outright starvation and ask girls and young women to post photos of their frail bodies as a "thinspiration."
Although these sites and eating disorders are also ubiquitous in the United States, the proposed French law would not work in the U.S. because of the constitutional protection of free speech, according to Susan Scafidi, an expert in fashion law teaching at New York's Fordham University Law School.
"We do ban advertising of smoking in the U.S. and we take smoking into consideration for movie ratings," she noted. "But we know there is a clear link between smoking and lung cancer. No one has yet established a connection between images in magazines and skinny girls."