In 2010 a French model and actress Isabelle Caro died as a result of anorexia. At one point she had weighed only 55 pounds. Concern over her death led the way to a proposed French law that would impose minimum weight standards for women and girls working as models, and criminal penalties for violators.
Sadly, despite predictions that the legislation—backed by President François Hollande’s Socialist government—would pass, the French Parliament rejected the proposed legislation last week, an event completely ignored by the American media. Parliament’s concern? Worries about discrimination against skinny job seekers, a laughable qualm when you consider the glorification of hollow-cheeked models and trend-setters that is the norm in the global popular culture.
While the proposed law was the most stringent of its kind to be considered 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), it wasn’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 made 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 proposed French law would have allowed working models, “suggests that a women who is 5 feet 7 inches tall should weigh at least 120 pounds.” Although the proposed French legislation allowed 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.