No More Bare-Bone Top Models in France?

A charter offers guidelines to fight anorexia, but no restrictions are imposed.

February 11, 2009, 2:28 AM

PARIS, April 10, 2008— -- Organizations representing fashion houses, advertising firms and media outlets — with the backing of the French minister of health — on Wednesday, in Paris, signed a charter of good conduct about the future use of top model body images to stave off growing concerns about anorexia. Several of the signers viewed the formal move as a "first step" toward helping to combat the eating disorder.

On the same day, a law project made the case before a commission at France's National Assembly, to punish those people or organizations that help to propagate unhealthy body images. Parliament members will examine this law project next week.

The voluntary charter outlines a series of guidelines but falls short of imposing restrictions.

"This charter is a good thing. We are showing a direction to follow. But it's on the basis of voluntarism, [and] there is nothing coercive," Caroline Tancrède, deputy editor in chief of French family magazine Femme Actuelle, and a signatory of the charter, told ABC News.

The signers pledge "not to accept using pictures of people, in particular youth, which could contribute to [or] promote a model of extreme thinness."

Those who signed the charter commit to "heighten public awareness about the acceptance of physical diversity.

"We pledge to promote, within our activities, diversity in the representation of the body, avoiding all form of stereotyping that can favor the creation of an aesthetic archetype that is potentially dangerous to [youth]," the charter states.

Those who signed also say they will "participate" in preventive actions put in place by the government or organizations.

"In the areas of fashion and creation, an awareness and information campaign will be developed by the medical services in charge of the professional activity, on the risks linked to extreme thinness," the charter says.

It also plans on "better informing the public" to avoid any "promotion of thinness."

The charter was instigated by a working group named "anorexia and body image," created in January 2007 under the authority of the French health minister, to respond to the deaths of top models and an outcry over bare-bone physiques that can be misconstrued as the epitome of beauty.

"It was not an easy process to get the different professionals that make up the fashion industry to sit around a table and agree on this charter," Marcel Rufo, a French child psychiatrist and co-president of the working group, told ABC News.

Some feel more needs to be done.

"I hope we will go much further. This is not going to be enough to eradicate this problem of anorexia," said Tancrède. "It's not an easy [undertaking] as the economical stakes are important. There are differing opinions between the different professions involved, [and] there are different views when you talk to advertising officials and modeling agencies' officials."

In November 2006, Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston died at the age of 21 due to a generalized infection caused by anorexia nervosa. At 5-foot-8, she weighed less than 88 pounds. Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos, 22, died of heart failure in August of the same year, reportedly after weeks of consuming nothing but lettuce and diet drinks.

Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani caused a stir last year with a series of anti-anorexia ads featuring Frenchwoman Isabelle Caro, who weighs just 70 pounds and measures 5-foot-4. The ads for the Italian clothing company NOLITA were launched during Milan's fashion week, with the slogan "No to Anorexia." France joins a worldwide drive to fight anorexia.

Other countries, including Italy and Great Britain, already have taken measures to fight the excessively skinny top models dilemma. But only Spain has taken a tough stance when, in September 2006, it banned from its fashion shows, models whose bodies came under the set body mass index of 18. This translates to a minimum weight of 123 pounds for a height of five feet and 5-foot-7.

On April 15, French parliament members will begin to discuss a law project aimed at preventing anorexia. Its objective will be to fine and/or jail people who, through different means of communications, are found guilty of knowingly engendering anorexia. Web sites contributing to harmful body imagery that could incite anorexia, called "pro-ana," are the law's main target.

"These Web sites that propagate messages of death must be the subject of particular vigilance," said French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot on Wednesday, during the press conference in Paris.

Those who would provoke "a person to go without food in a persistent way" or to "diet in an excessive way to dramatically alter his/her physical appearance, which could expose him/her to a danger of death or compromise his/her health," could face two years in jail and a $47,500 fine. These sentences could rise to three years in jail and $63,000 in fines if the person or group's activities led to the death of a person.

In France, anorexia affects between 30,000 to 40,000 people, mainly young women. The death rate is 5.6 percent among anorexic women in the first 10 years.

"Something had to be done because the situation is grave. The representation of a top model's body has to look less deadly because they are models for young girls," former model Géraldine Maillet told ABC News. She is now a member of the working group and author of the book "Almost Top Model," in which she criticizes the extreme thinness of top models.