Can France Legislate People Out of Anorexia?

A proposed law would set a minimum BMI for fashion models, a move proponents say is necessary to combat eating disorders.

A model on the catwalk at Paris Fashion Week 2015 (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)

What's more French than a story involving fashion modeling and love of food? There can only be one answer: a story involving modeling, food, and questionably coercive state intervention.

The French parliament is considering a law that would set weight standards for models, based on body-mass index, an indicator of body fat calculated by dividing mass by height squared. Models with BMIs lower than 18 would be banned, and agencies that employ them could face tens of thousands of dollars in fines or even criminal penalties including jail for staff. Proponents say the measure is essential to combat eating disorders and unhealthy body-image standards. The law's author says there are between 30,000 and 40,000 people in France suffering from anexoria, and the average BMI for women in France is 23.2, the lowest in Western Europe. The law is backed by President Francois Hollande and seems likely to pass. While Italy, Spain, and Israel have already set such standards, the proposed law has potent symbolism and impact because it's in France, a fashion capital.

The U.S. government says any BMI of less than 18.5 indicates someone is underweight, though not necessarily suffering from an eating disorder. The New York Times lists models like Gisele Bundchen and Naomi Campbell as being in the 16 to 17 range, while the particularly wispy Kate Moss's BMI registered at about 15 in her modeling heyday. For a woman who stands 5-foot-2, a BMI of about 18 would require weighing about 100 pounds.

All the right people seem to hate the law. The fashion industry has tended to oppose such restrictions. Designers like Karl Lagerfeld have claimed, risibly, to have never worked with anorexic models. The law may have some effect on the health of models, and it's hard to disagree with the motivation involved. From thigh gaps to photoshops, it's easy to see dangerously unrealistic expectations in the industry. Campaigners cite the case of Isabelle Caro, a former model who died of anorexia in 2007 and at one point weighed as little as 55 pounds.

But will this law achieve its broader goal of combatting anorexia? Or, to put that another way, can you legislate people out of disease?

Attempting to do so fits with France's tendency to regulate social issues aggressively, repeatedly intervening in areas where doing so might raise hackles in the more libertarian United States. Most obviously, there's France's welfare state, with labor protections and generous benefits—a system many American liberals envy. But the American left and right are mostly agreed about other steps going too far, like the ban on clothing that covers the face. The law includes balaclavas and the like, but it's commonly described as a headscarf law, since it bans full-face coverings some Muslim women view as a religious obligation. Similar legislation would likely never pass muster in the U.S., with its strong religious-freedom laws. The French law's very purpose, in fact, is to enforce secular society.

That headscarf ban attempts to coerce belief with legislation—a morally questionable idea that may not be effective, but one with a lengthy historical pedigree. The model law does something else: It attempts to coerce diet and body ideals with legislation. Marie Rose Moro, a child psychiatrist skeptical of the model law, told the New York Times that it can't eliminate a “transnational sort of tyranny of thinness”—an interesting choice of words, since legislating weight only for members of a specific profession might be seen as tyranny of a different, and more traditional, sort.

What if it works, though? Where Americans once bridled at laws banning smoking indoors, most (but by no means all) have grown accustomed to such bans as a fact of life that encourages better health. There isn't much evidence available yet on the effect of the Italian, Israeli, and Spanish laws in discouraging anorexia. And it will take more than one season to see how, or if, the French law can help overturn the tyranny of thinness.