France passes law banning underweight models.

Did the French government go too far in its attempt to ban excessively thin models from the fashion industry, with stiff fines and the prospect of jail time for brands that break the new law?

No one in the industry will defend the deliberate hiring of an unhealthy model, but initial opinion is divided over the controversial new French law. The ruling, which passed last week, had been in the works for months.

As reported, models who want to work in France will have to provide a doctor’s note confirming their overall health and an appropriate Body Mass Index. Furthermore, any commercial photographs of models that have been digitally altered will need to include a disclosure stating so. Any parties who fail to comply, whether model agents or fashion houses, can face six months in prison and a fine of 75,000 euros, or $81,288 at current exchange.

France joins Israel, which in 2012 passed a law banning underweight models, as well as Italy and Spain, which have adopted similar measures. Still, the exact parameters of the French bill haven’t been fully disclosed yet. It is likely to include all commercial photos of models, including editorial material, and envision fines for those who hold the rights to the images as well as those who are subsequently reproducing them. Specifics are slated to be released by a ministerial order at the beginning of 2016.

The ruling already has its detractors. Take Oliviero Toscani, the Italian photographer behind Nolita’s controversial antianorexia campaign in 2007, which featured the model and actress Isabelle Caro, who died in 2010. Toscani said the required health certificate is pointless: “How will it work? You can always say: ‘She was 10 pounds more when she was booked.’” He also said the mandate regarding retouched photographs proves a deep ignorance of the profession on the part of the lawmakers: “All photos are retouched. Not [just] Photoshop, but even the way we use light can alter the appearance [of a model].”

“There’s something shocking about getting rid of the artistic dimension: Without retouching, there wouldn’t have been Philippe Halsman and Irving Penn’s photographs,” offered designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac.

For photographer Nick Knight, while it’s important to protect people from being exploited, the recently approved legislation is “fundamentally backward looking…A piece of well-meaning but completely idiotic thinking which comes from a lack of understanding of something.” Specifically, he argues the mandate regarding retouched photographs seems to be based on a complete misunderstanding on how a photograph is created: “The problem doesn’t lie on whether people can retouch or not retouch; the problem lies on our understanding of what’s an image. There is no reality in photography, there’s never been any reality in photography – photography has always been about a very subjective opinion of the world around it and the more subjective it is, the more we like it. We don’t want photographers to be machines; we want them to be people with artistic visions and therefore can tell us how they see the world, not how their camera sees the world.”

Added Friquette Thévenet-Mondino, a seasoned stylist and former fashion editor in chief at French Elle: “All photos are retouched. We’d be better off putting the mention ‘retouched photograph’ in the front of the magazine once and not on every single photo.”

Diane von Furstenberg, who as chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America has championed the organization’s health initiative regarding the regulation of models since 2007, could not be reached for comment. Steven Kolb, the CFDA’s chief executive officer and president, declined to comment.

A spot check of industry and media executives revealed a cross section of opinion.

Carlo Capasa, ceo and president of Camera Nazionale della Moda: “The Italian Fashion Chamber started taking care of these problems years ago by signing the first ‘ethical code of self-regulation’ in December of 2006. This document doesn’t list rules, but guidelines — especially encouraging companies not to hire models younger than 16 and who have a Body Mass Index lower than 18. Italian companies immediately started following these guidelines and I would underscore how, sometimes, self-regulation works better than actual laws since it is rooted in common sense. I can actually say that now in Italy, I don’t see models that are too skinny on the catwalk; not just because of our designers’ aesthetic sense, but especially because here, we are all very sensitive to this problem.”

Trey Laird, ceo and chief creative officer of Laird+Partners: “I think they’ve gone too far. Certainly you want to not have people unhealthy and in danger. That’s something that shouldn’t be endorsed or promoted, but I don’t think it’s the government to dictate the weight of a girl.” And as for the rule on retouching? “It’s ridiculous. It’s like watching ‘Kung Fu Panda’ and saying this panda is not real. How much do you need to note? If you’re going to have Julia Roberts on the cover of a magazine and you take out some wrinkles or change the color of her dress to match with the logo…do you need to put a big warning on it like a pack of cigarettes? At some point, enough is enough. There are bigger issues for governments to worry about.”

Susan Scafidi, founder and academic director of Fordham’s Fashion Law Institute: “There are two primary differences between the French law and previous legislation in Israel, as well as earlier efforts in Madrid and Milan. One is that the French law has teeth — real penalties directed at modeling agencies in the form of fines and even jail time. The other is that Paris is the traditional global capital of the fashion industry, and since most successful models work internationally, the French law is poised to have global impact. The effectiveness of the law will not depend on rounding up large numbers of chic modeling agency heads in old-fashioned paddy wagons, but instead on an in terrorem effect and on cooperation by various players in the industry. Will the agencies be nervous enough about being made an example to feed their models a buttery croissant or two, even at the risk of losing a booking? Will casting directors and designers let out their seams a bit, or will they automatically choose only the skinniest models available? Or will agents instead scramble to find lenient doctors willing to overlook a few protruding ribs? There could be a challenge to the law in the form of a right to work argument or discrimination claim on behalf of models who are too thin or even anorexic, which is one reason why similar proposals in the U.S. have not gained traction….Ultimately, the greatest effect of the French law may be to add momentum to the current trend toward body diversity on the runway.”

Damir Doma: “I think it’s important to take a closer look at what’s going on. It seems the agencies alone cannot regulate it by themselves — or maybe they don’t want to. Fact is, as long as there is a demand for extra-skinny models, the agencies will continue to deliver. Unless, as in this case, someone is trying to regulate [from the top]….It’s important to stay credible, which in my case means [finding models with] a personality and naturalness. We do cast via agencies, but also on the streets and through our personal network.”

Robbie Myers, editor in chief of Elle: “According to the Guardian, ‘The tough new legislation is aimed at combating the growing problem of anorexia in models and rising numbers of young people with eating disorders.’ A law to ‘protect’ a population of what, 400 runway models? But it’s OK to be a seriously underweight civil service worker? Or truck driver? This really isn’t about protecting a class of people, this is about pushing back at an industry that defines beauty. I’m not defending the use of underweight models at all — my team and I look on in horror when these skeletal young women who can barely make one lap up and down the runway slump by us at a show. But you can’t legislate beauty standards or legislate bad taste away, as much as the French have tried to do that in the past….We’d be much better off legislating for everyone to have access to affordable, healthy food than making models get a doctor’s note saying they’re fit enough to wear fancy clothes for pay.”

Fabien Baron, art director and editorial director of Interview magazine: “The BMI does not make much sense as many models are naturally very thin and they have no eating disorders nor do they watch very much what they are eating. This law will penalize some perfectly fine models from working.”

Caroline Rush, ceo of the British Fashion Council: “The BFC does not enforce BMI, as it is an inaccurate measure for young women, as outlined in the Model Health Inquiry. We encourage a focus on looking after models and their health and well-being with healthy food and drink provided backstage at shows.”

Rebecca Minkoff: “We always aim to cast healthy models for our runway shows, look books and e-commerce shoots. We have an obligation as designers to show our customers and young women everywhere that healthy is chic. I think the ruling in France is a great step.”

Michael Gross, author of “Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women”: “I think that the Photoshopping thing is far more interesting than the body mass thing. I don’t think you can legislate this. I must have interviewed 100 models; some of them could eat like horses and not put on any weight. It’s like legislative morality; it just doesn’t work. I think that the motivation behind it is good, but the actual mechanisms won’t work. Models have to be sample size; it’s that simple. They could legislate the age of models.”

Jean-Baptiste Mondino, photographer: “What’s extremely disturbing to me is to think that one law will change everything. First of all, we have to say that we care about our models, because I see a lack of compassion and tolerance toward the girls. The designers have to start providing different sample sizes of dresses and different shoe sizes to fit different girls. They need to have time to rest when they arrive and they need not suffer. Like athletes or other people whose work has to do with their body, they have issues — they come with destroyed feet, have spine problems. We need to take precautionary measures. But when are we breaking the law and when are we just doing our job? The law should be more precise on that.” On retouching: “The black-and-white photography in old Hollywood was all retouched. Do you really think Katharine Hepburn’s skin was this smooth? Retouching is part of the beauty of photography. The moment we choose the lens we are already starting to alter the final image. A wide-angle camera like it was popular in the Seventies will stretch the girl and make her taller and thinner. The image is never a reality. Everything is fake in photography. If you want to reflect reality, then you should ban makeup, too. It’s like editing in movies. Do you want a couple to really make love in front of the camera? Really?”

Nick Knight, photographer: “The position of the camera with respect to the model changes that person’s shape greatly, so are we going to warn people that this picture was taken with a wide angle lens? We do not see film in the same way, and after all every second of film is just 24 still photographs, nobody expects film to be about an unretouched vision of the world. We are all happy to watch movies and suspend our disbelief, so we should treat photography in the same way.”

Chantal Thomass, lingerie designer: “I don’t feel directly concerned because in lingerie, you need girls with shapes. Agencies send me girls with breast and hips….Sure they’re thin: We typically ask for a size 32B and a slim waist. Look at Victoria’s Secret’s Angels: they’re thin but not very skinny. I see 40 models in two hours and select two. I don’t have time to check their health record book….Of course, if a girl looks ill, we inquire; we aren’t monsters.”

Stacey Bendet, designer of Alice + Olivia: “I don’t agree with an industry trying to control the health of individuals. Can you imagine if bankers had to submit how many steaks they ate in a week? It is each individual’s own responsibility to control their health. As an industry and as leaders, we need to promote health, wellness and positive examples of body image…Controlling it to this degree seems a bit irrational.”

Nicole Miller: “Everyone agreed to promote the healthy model idea, but everyone seems to ignore it. I don’t see an abundance of anorexic models, but a few that are clearly too thin. I think since the minimum age has been raised, there are less naturally super skinny girls going on castings….I agree there has to be some control, but I am sure plenty of unscrupulous doctors will be more than happy to sign certificates. I think everyone in the industry should do their part by not sending girls with health issues on castings, or not hiring them if they do attend the castings.”

Heather Marr, personal trainer to models: “There is definitely starting to be a shift in the industry focusing not just on a model’s appearance but on their health as well. Girls now are training and eating smart for a healthy, fit body as opposed to under eating, smoking and overexercising.”

Rebecca Dayan, former model and artist: “I feel that it’s a little bit arbitrary, the BMI. I read that the BMI has to be 18.5. For instance, I’m pretty healthy, I’m over model size, and I’m under that [BMI], because your weight has nothing to do with how skinny or fat you look. I’m happy that France is taking this into consideration as a way toward change, but I’m not sure it’s the best way. I’m not sure giving fines and putting people in prison is the way to go about it….I think it’s definitely a conversation that is important and it’s something that needs to be talked about and I’m not happy watching friends of mine that are models have the complete wrong image of their body.”

— With contributions from Alexandra Steigrad, Ally Betker, Natalie Theodosi and Fabiana Repaci

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