Is banning models with BMIs under 18 really the answer?
Or does it shame skinniness and fuel misconceptions of anorexia?
The term ‘Anorexia Nervosa’ springs to mind images of obtruding thighbones, visible ribcages and frail limbs. A tragic sight as victims compulsively starve themselves, struggle to eat, and become reduced to mere skeletons of their former selves.
Last month, the French parliament backed a bill to ban ‘excessively thin’ models from the catwalk. Models will now be required to present a doctor’s note proving they have a BMI of 18 or over. Models and agencies could face a hefty fine of €75,000 (£54,000) and a six month jail sentence, in line with this new bill.
The bill is intended to force the fashion industry to present models of a healthy and realistic body type, but does it? Or does it merely add another expectation, a rule to an industry so obsessed with perfection? Does it really create an inclusive industry void of pressures surrounding image and weight, or does it merely add to the presumption that anorexia equals skinny? Isn’t anorexia steeped in enough stigma, without preconceptions about the disease actually being confirmed by government legislation?
In its defence, the bill is certainly a step in the right direction. It is clear that the fashion industry plays a role in raising aesthetic expectations of increasingly younger girls towards an ever-impossible idea of ‘perfection’. Even in 2015, there has been a disturbing number of media outrages over the industry’s pressure on models to slim down, and in turn, the unrealistic expectations on women and girls to follow this trend. Model Charli Howard left her modelling agency last year, after being told she was ‘too big’, and could ‘lose and inch on her hips’, despite being a size 6. The highly criticised ‘Are You Beach Body Ready?’ campaign, and a numerous disturbing ‘thinsporation’ blogs and websites, show that telling women what to do with their bodies is certainly not out of fashion.
But, is declaring a BMI of below 18 ‘healthy’ or even ‘anorexic’ really progress? Or is it just moving the shame onto another group? Model Lyndsey Scott sums-up the contradiction with the bill perfectly. ‘Having a bunch of tall, thin, pretty, potentially healthy teenagers cram cupcakes for two weeks and fill themselves with fat injections until they’re runway-ready might sound like a great idea for a reality show, but really, is forcing some models into a thicker body type that may not be natural for them the best way to solve a health problem?’
By forcing the industry to provide girls that are a regulated body type misses the point of where the problem lies, and also adds to the massive preconceptions and stigma surrounding a terrible and difficult mental illness. The root of anorexia is not in the weight of its victims. That is a secondary cause, and not a requirement. It is in a mental disease which forces victims to compulsory starve themselves. Basing laws off this incredibly common misconception does nothing to help the state of the fashion industry, not to mention insulting to any healthy individual with a BMI naturally under 18.
The use of BMI is also hugely flawed. BMI (Body Mass Index), attempts to place people on a scale of health with only two pieces of information, height and weight. The value was first conceived by the Belgium mathematician (not doctor), Adolphe Quetelet in 1830 as a way to group body types for social science. It was later popularized and (wrongly) given medical grounds in the 1980s in the U.S., as a way to standardise the ‘normal’ and ‘ideal’ body types – and here’s the crux – for medical insurance companies. Some healthy girls have BMIs under 18, some anorexics have BMIs above. Dwaine Johnson (The Rock), is obese, according to the BMI scale. How can we possibly categorise people so blindly, and worse, use such a flawed system as a base measure of a reform bill?
The complex and intertwined issues that lead to anorexia and body dysmorphia cannot and should not be reduced to a simple number, which does not take into account lifestyle choices, muscle and fat content or perhaps most importantly, mental health.
Defining health according to BMI scales, and shaming those who do not fall into what is deemed ‘normal’ is not progression towards a more inclusive and realistic fashion industry. Nor does shaming those who fall below the magic line of 18 help anyone’s self-esteem. And in a world where what is deemed ‘normal’ decreases everyday as pressure mounts, more body shaming on simply a different group is certainly not what is needed.