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A New Age in French — Modeling

A New Age in French — Modeling

All that talk about changing the shape — literally — of modeling has finally been put into action. At least in France.

Just days before the presidential election gave a resounding victory to Emmanuel Macron, heralding a new generation in French politics, two decrees aimed at protecting the health of models and at preventing anorexia were published.

Other countries — including India, Israel, Italy and Spain — have measures to promote the well-being of models, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America has guidelines for its members. But the fact that France is generally considered the home of fashion, and because many young models begin their careers in Paris (for example, Sofia Mechetner, who was “discovered’’ by Dior in 2015 at 14), means the legal changes could have the widest reverberations. Especially because of the penalties involved.

Models are now required to have a medical certificate, valid for up to two years, confirming their general physical well-being and the fact they are not excessively underweight. The much-debated body mass index, or BMI — a measurement whose signifier of health has been widely disputed, as it does not take into account individual physiques — will be part of the consideration for models older than 16.

The law, which applies to all models working in the European Union and the European Economic Area, states: “Unless specified and identified in medical records for a model over 16, the body mass index will be taken into account, particularly when its value suggests moderate or severe thinness after the age of 18, and is lower that the third percentile in French references for height and gender before that age.”

Separately, beginning Oct. 1, any “commercial” image of a model whose bodily appearance has been digitally or otherwise altered will have to be labeled “photographie retouchée,” or retouched photograph.

Those who do not disclose image retouching are subject to a fine of 37,500 euros, or more than $41,000; employing a model without the health requirements and certificate carries a fine of €75,000 and six months in jail.

Though the law had been under discussion for a long time and was approved by the National Assembly in 2015, its publication in the Official Journal was required for it to take effect, a move that occurred last week, spurred in part by the desire of the health minister, Marisol Touraine, to put it in place before the change of administration.

Whether the law will really make a difference, however, remains to be seen.

“I applaud the motivation and appreciate that France has taken a leadership role,” said Sara Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance, an advocacy group. “That said, there needs to be careful attention to how this plays out over the next year or two in France. Are the decrees being implemented and are they achieving their intended effects?”

After all, a primary reason for the prevalence of anorexia among models, and for their exploitation, is the skewed balance of power in the industry, which places models at the bottom of the totem pole, at the mercy of agents, bookers, photographers, stylists and so on. It is possible that insisting that models be “certified” by yet another authority figure will simply add to the concerns, again putting someone other than the model in the position of judging her health.

In addition, the retouching law applies only to advertising, not to editorial images in magazines or newspapers. And in the hierarchy of fashion, editorial is seen as much more desirable (if less lucrative) than commercial campaigns. Additionally, models are most often discovered and break through in magazines before they are snapped up by brands for marketing campaigns. So the new law would not alleviate the pressure for thinness emanating from the glossy side.

“Will it fix all the problems created by these deceptive images that saturate our mass media?” asked S. Bryn Austin, director of the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders at Harvard’s School of Public Health. “No, probably not. But it will be one step closer to stemming the well-documented psychological harm these images cause, especially to young and vulnerable consumers. France is saying to the fashion and advertising industries that it’s time they acted responsibly toward the people on whom their livelihoods depend.”

Fashion has a history of periodically engaging in self-recrimination, especially when it comes to models, but of then settling back into familiar patterns. See, for example, the discussion about diversity on the runway, as well as the question of models’ weight. Perhaps the situation will change, however, now that there is actual financial risk.

“To know how much of a difference the new law will eventually make for the health and safety of fashion models and consumers, we need policy makers to now support evaluation of how the law is implemented across the country, and what effects it has in France,” Dr. Austin said. “We may also expect to see ripple effects throughout the global fashion industry, which looks to France as the industry leader. Only time will tell.”





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