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French Bill Takes Chic Out of Being Too Thin

 

Doreen Carvajal

New York Times
April 16, 2008

 

PARIS — In the capital of high fashion and ultrathin models, conservative French legislators adopted a pioneering law on Tuesday aimed at stifling a proliferation of Web sites that promote eating disorders with “thinspiration” and starvation tips.

The bill, approved by the lower house of Parliament, faces a Senate vote. If passed, it would take aim at any means of mass communication — including magazines and Web sites — that promote eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia with punishments of up to three years in prison and more than $70,000 in fines.

The legislation was sponsored by Valérie Boyer, a conservative lawmaker from the Bouches-du-Rhône region in the south of France, and was also backed by the government’s health minister, Roselyne Bachelot. It is one of the strongest measures proposed since the 2006 death of a Brazilian model, Ana Carolina Reston, from anorexia.

“We have noticed,” Ms. Boyer said in an interview with The Associated Press, “that the sociocultural and media environment seems to favor the emergence of troubled nutritional behavior, and that is why I think it necessary to act.”

But the proposed law was criticized by the French Federation of Couture. Didier Grumbach, the federation president, told The Associated Press that it was impossible to legislate body weight. “Never will we accept in our profession that a judge decides if a young girl is skinny or not skinny,” he said. “That doesn’t exist in the world, and it will certainly not exist in France.”

With the proposed law, the French legislators are seeking to tame a murky world of some 400 sites extolling “ana” and “mia,” nicknames for anorexia and bulimia. Since 2000, such Web sites have multiplied in many languages, offering blunt tips on crash dieting, bingeing, vomiting and hiding weight loss from concerned parents.

The bill would make it illegal to “provoke a person to seek excessive weight loss by encouraging prolonged nutritional deprivation that would have the effect of exposing them to risk of death or endangering health.”

Critics from the French Socialist Party complained that the bill was vaguely worded and rushed through the lower house by the U.M.P., the conservative party of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Eating disorder experts also expressed doubts about whether such a law would help victims or create even more demand for the sites by publicizing them.

“Ultimately, I think it’s a mistake to ban them because I think that you’re going to be hard pressed to demonstrate in a very clear way that these sites have a direct negative affect,” said Michael Levine, a psychology professor at Kenyon College in Ohio whose specialty is eating disorders and the mass media.

As written, the proposed French law does not make it clear who would be ultimately responsible for the content of such sites — the content creator or the Internet service hosting the site.

An aide to Ms. Boyer, the lawmaker, said the U.M.P. expected the proposed law to be amended to address those questions. He added that the idea was to focus on institutions that promote eating disorders, noting that “we cannot exclude fashion shows if there is a problem of health” or the death of a model.

 

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