- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008

The fashion capitals of the world have declared war on the super-skinny and their enablers.

Very thin models still make up the bulk of women who parade on catwalks and pose for magazines. Legislators and some industry leaders are trying to change that, though — at least from the extremely thin to the merely quite thin. So far, the push to discourage what many see as an unhealthy standard of beauty has come mainly from Europe.

Could it spread to the biggest non-European fashion center? Will New York, and the United States as a whole, be next?

On Tuesday, France’s National Assembly voted to approve a bill that allows three-year prison sentences and fines of up to $71,000 for those who encourage “extreme thinness.” The bill, which now goes to the Senate, targets Web sites that encourage anorexia, but even its author contends it’s vague enough to be used against the fashion industry.

It’s just the latest attempt to curb extreme dieting among models and those who want to look like them. In 2006, Madrid Fashion Week decided it would not allow models with a body-mass index (BMI) of less than 18 to work the show. Milan followed suit, banning models with BMIs under 18.5. The World Health Organization classifies a normal BMI as between 18.5 and 24.9.

The moves were made after two Brazilian models died that year of anorexia-related complications. Ana Carolina Reston was 5 feet 8 and weighed 88 pounds — a BMI of just 13.4. A third died in 2007.

Catherine Orzolek-Kronner, assistant professor of social work at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., and a scholar on eating disorders, applauds the French measure.

“Clearly, the French hold a robust international reputation for being leaders in fashion, so we can only hope that this initiative will inspire the U.S. to establish such a standard,” she says. “In an ideal world, I would like to see more regulations around standards for models and even ballerinas or gymnasts.”

Last year, a New York City Council member proposed a ban on models with a BMI under 18.5 from the runways of New York Fashion Week, but it didn’t get wide support. Ms. Orzolek-Kronner doesn’t see this kind of legislation being passed here.

“There’s more money spent on dieting products than on education,” she notes, adding that as of two years ago, it was a $50 billion industry. “They’re pretty powerful. They can influence lobbyists and politicians.”

More important, she doesn’t think the public would get on board.

“While everybody is alarmed when you hear somebody died from anorexia, or the tragic incident with the model a couple years ago, that passes quickly. People are back to, ‘Gotta stay in shape, gotta lose weight,’ ” she says. “People still operate under the premise that people are heavy or large or fat because of the lack of self-control. People have bought into this thin ideal.”

Even the very young.

Ms. Orzolek-Kronner was amazed when her 6-year-old son chastised her for eating a bag of potato chips, saying, “Don’t eat those, Mom, you’ll get fat.” He already has a “fear of fat,” and she says, “I can guarantee 100 percent he does not get it in his home.”

Observing that messages in the media have a long reach, she says, “It’s really become a societal problem.”

Michael Levine, a professor of psychology at Kenyon College and a scholar on eating disorders and the mass media, agrees there’s a widespread problem but doesn’t think legislation is the solution.

“It’s a risky thing to criminalize an aspect of free speech like that,” he says.

He worries about criminalizing what, in the case of some Web sites, might be the work of the mentally ill and what, in the case of others, could be called “harm-reduction,” as with sites that suggest ways to live more safely if you do have anorexia.

“What exactly is the danger with these sites? Is it that impressionable young women or boys … see these pictures and think that this is a viable lifestyle? That’s unlikely,” he says. “I’d rather see our culture change in terms of parenting and education and so forth, rather than saying this is illegal.”

In fact, Mr. Levine thinks such legislation ignores the real roots of our body-image problem. “It really does divert our attention from the impact of mainstream media. On television programs, fat people are still literally a figure of fun,” he says.

“Kate Moss may be a great person, but the way her body is marketed, to me, is a special kind of pornography,” Mr. Levine acknowledges. Still, he wouldn’t support a ban on modeling by Miss Moss and her thin ilk.

“Mass media are a really powerful, necessary set of tools in any democracy,” he says. “Like all powerful mechanisms of any sort, one needs to learn how to use them responsibly.”

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