Advertise anorexia, go to jail?

A French bill could outlaw the promotion of "extreme" thinness.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published April 16, 2008 2:00PM (UTC)
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Imagine, for a minute, that the webmasters behind pro-anorexia Web sites could be thrown behind bars. That could become a reality if a bill passed Tuesday by the French parliament's lower house makes it through the Senate; the measure would make it illegal for anyone to incite "others to deprive themselves of food" to an "excessive" degree. Offenders could be jailed for up to three years or fined up to $47,000. "Encouraging young girls to lie to their doctors, advising them on foods that are easier to regurgitate and inciting them to beat themselves up each time they eat is not freedom of expression," said France's Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot. "These messages are death messages. Our country must be able to prosecute those who are hiding behind these websites."

But the bill is broad enough that designers, advertisers and fashion magazines could be plausibly targeted as well. For instance, a magazine or designer could be fined for holding a photo shoot with a starved-skinny model. The fashion industry is, of course, outraged. Didier Grumbach, president of the French Federation of Couture, said: "Never will we accept in our profession that a judge decides if a young girl is skinny or not skinny. That doesn't exist in the world, and it will certainly not exist in France."


I can get behind the fashion industry establishing a base body mass index to prevent models from being pushed onto death's door just to maintain a career. For the same reason, I understand the desire to punish designers, advertisers and magazines for using images of life-threateningly thin models -- but it seems that this measure's main concern isn't the models' health but the cultural impact advertisements have. Call me a loosey goosey libertarian, but I'm not convinced that's something the government has any place regulating, nor is it something that is easily regulated (the bill's definition of "promotion" and "extreme" food deprivation would have to be meticulous). Not to mention, as much as I find pro-anorexia Web sites disturbing, aren't many of these webmasters also suffering from eating disorders themselves? Is legal punishment the best way to address their, and their readers', problem?

Tracy Clark-Flory

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