Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Archival posts from my former blog, "Eating Disorders News”

French Ban on Too-Skinny Models Passes

On Apri 3, legislation—backed by President François Hollande’s Socialist government--was adopted by the French Parliament that imposes minimum weight standards for women and girls working as models, and criminal penalties for violators.

The law comes in the wake of concern over the 2010 death as a result of anorexia of French model and actress Isabelle Caro. At one point she had weighed only 55 pounds. 

The law is the most stringent of its kind to be passed so far in any country (a fine of about $83,000 and a prison sentence of up to six months would have been imposed on the modeling houses and fashion agencies in violation of it), but it isn't the first: Israel has already banned underweight and underage models, while in Italy and Spain, less sweeping bans have taken place. Italy relies on voluntary pacts with the industry, and Madrid back in 2006 banned too-skinny models from the runways of Madrid fashion week.

The Madrid ban followed the death of two severely underweight Latin American models in 2006. Their BMIs were less than 13. In 2007, the Council of Fashion Designers of America adopted a voluntary initiative setting 16 as the minimum age for models and requiring snacks (!) be available during New York Fashion Week. Vogue magazine, meanwhile, adopted some voluntary guidelines that promised to not “knowingly” use underweight models and models under 16 years old. But we think that’s not nearly enough. 

Before I tell you why, though, let's first put these BMI numbers into perspective. The New York Times noted that an 18.5 index, the minimum level the  French allows working models, “suggests that a women who is 5 feet 7 inches tall should weigh at least 120 pounds.” Although the French legislation allows leeway for health officials to adjust that standard “for factors such as bone size," as an overall guideline, does 120 pounds for a woman or girl who is 5 feet 7 inches tall no matter what her bone size is sound normal and healthy to you?

My co-writer Marcia notes that so dominant is the focus in schools, among public health officials, and in the media on the dangers of being overweight that her patients “have a hard time seeing that these models aren’t healthy.” And yet the truth is that a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5 is considered the very low end of normal weight by the World Health Organization and by the National Institute of Health. And, Marcia points out, an 18.5 BMI is also “too thin for most women to have regular menses and eat normally.”

To see Marcia’s carefully researched and reasoned recommendations for what she considers appropriate BMI categories for risky low weight, low weight and minimum safe weight, click here.

In the light of this week's passage of the French law, it's time, America, to consider similar legislation. 

Eating Disorders, Body Image and the Women’s Rights Movement