France seeks to ban skinny models, who’s next?

A model on the catwalk during Paris Fashion Week March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Skinny women are as iconic to French culture as the baguette. But the backlash is on and recently the government of France proposed legislation banning excessively thin fashion models.

C’est what? No more wafer-thin models prowling Paris catwalks? Who will wear all those size zero couture dresses?

All kidding aside, France is seeking to become the latest in a growing list of countries that includes Italy, Spain, and Israel that have adopted laws against too-thin models.

The law, which is to be debated in French parliament this week, would enforce regular weight checks and fines of up to 75,000 (C$101,246) for any breaches, with up to six months in jail for staff involved, socialist lawmaker Olivier Veran, who wrote the amendments, told Le Parisien.

Models would have to present a medical certificate showing a Body Mass Index (BMI) of at least 18, about 55 kg (121 lb) for a height of 1.75 meters (5.7 feet), before being hired for a job and for a few weeks afterwards, he said.

The bill’s amendments also propose penalties for anything made public that could be seen as encouraging extreme thinness, notably pro-anorexia web sites that glorify unhealthy lifestyles.

“It’s important for fashion models to say that they need to eat well and take care of their health, especially for young women who look to the models as an aesthetic ideal,” Health Minister Marisol Touraine told BFM TV this week.

In 2007, Isabelle Caro, an anorexic 28-year-old former French fashion model, died after posing for a photographic campaign to raise awareness about the illness. Some 30,000 to 40,000 people in France suffer from anorexia, most of them teenagers, said Veran, who is a doctor.

In Canada, there are no laws for how much a person can, or should, weigh. However, if we were to enact any, they might target people on the other end of the scale, as more than half the population is overweight, according to 2013 data from Statistics Canada. Employers are also more likely to discriminate against overweight workers than underweight ones.

Yet weight-setting laws would likely be ruled unconstitutional. In 2000, a Supreme Court of Canada decision (Québec v. Boisbriand, or Mercier) expanded the definition of a disability to include afflictions such as alcoholism, drug addiction, and obesity. That case combined three separate human rights complaints, where the complainants were denied employment based on their would-be employers’ belief they could not do the jobs due to their perceived handicaps, despite no evidence to the contrary.

That ruling, however, has not led to a flood of weight-related discrimination cases. Generally, B.C. human rights courts have been more receptive to defining obesity as a disability, while Ontario courts have been more reticent.

Yet thin or fat, the law remains rather amorphous.

“The Canadian Human Rights Act does not include size or weight as grounds for discrimination,” Stacy Ann Morris, then spokesperson for the Canadian Human Rights Commission in Ottawa, told The Globe and Mail in a 2010 interview.

— with files from Reuters and The Globe and Mail
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