You can ask any teenage girl and they’ll tell you that the value put on weight-loss for women is excessive. But is France’s move ineffective thanks to BMI?

Photo Credit: Dmitry Valberg cc
Photo Credit: Dmitry Valberg cc

A healthy body image is important, and it’s undeniable that today’s media market makes it hard for young women in particular to feel normal or ok with their weight. So when France, capital to a thriving fashion industry, passed a ban on fashion houses that employed “excessively thin” models many people triumphed their fight against anorexia. But in the long run, their methods might not be any better than what the U.S. is doing.

The French ban, passed as an amendment to a larger health bill by the French parliament, imposes up to six months of prison time and a fine of €75,000 ($82,272, at the time of this writing) on any model agencies or fashion brands that employ models with a BMI lower than 18. The problem is, BMI isn’t exactly a definite indicator of anorexia or health overall.

At first glance, the two country’s attitudes towards weight discrimination and body image may seem at odds. While France is aimed at combating anorexia, which afflicts approximately 40,000 French citizens, the U.S. still isn’t sure how to address weight discrimination in the workplace.

Though multiple studies have shown that weight discrimination is alive and well in the American workplace, but Greta Ravitsky of Health, Employment & Labor writes that doesn’t mean there’s protections against them:

Certainly, healthcare entities, wishing to promote an image of health, may exercise their discretion in selecting employees that best reflect that image.  Moreover, as statistics reflect that overweight employees miss significantly more days of work and incur more healthcare costs than their thinner counterparts, employers concerned about the rising costs associated with obesity in the workplace may consider such an exclusionary policy to be a sound business practice. However, does such systematic exclusion of a significant segment of our population constitute illegal discrimination?

In Texas, as in most states, such practice is legal.  No employment laws, with the exception of one state law (Michigan) (PDF) , and six cities, specifically prohibit weight discrimination.  However, obesity may fall under the protection of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the federal agency responsible for enforcing the ADA, has taken the position that the ADA covers morbid obesity and obesity caused by a physiological disorder.

This also runs up against what the EEOC is trying to promote around wellness programs, which although well intentioned can run afoul of a variety of acts aimed to protect U.S. employees.

For people who struggle with their body image, messages like these—that you are what you weigh, and that discrimination on this basis is allowed—are bombarded at them from all angles: work, media, possibly even people around them. Women, particularly, bear the bulk of body image issues. Nine out of ten French citizens who suffers from anorexia is a woman, and one UK study found girls as young as five worry about their size and appearance.

The thing is, this isn’t restricted to people who are overweight. As evidenced by the “All About That Bass” controversy last summer, there’s a very specific way people are supposed to look, and the sad fact is that even models and their ilk aren’t it. And though short of real-life airbrushing nobody’s likely to satisfy such a shadowy

So while the French amendment makes clear strides to combat anorexia by imposing a fine, or even jail time, on those who employ models whose BMI falls beneath 18, it’s not exactly a perfect measurement of ensuring that models are healthy. As Quartz reports:

In New York, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) has formed a committee and hosted events for discussing and promoting healthier lifestyles for models—and healthier body images for those who admire them—but the “guidelines” are fairly nebulous, beyond age requirements for runway modeling and curfews for minors.

The CFDA’s effort is about awareness and discussion, rather than legislation. On one hand, talk is cheap, especially when the editors and designers participating are among those who continue to put very thin models on their magazine pages and runways.

On the other, the less draconian approach acknowledges that something as overly simplistic as BMI—which is calculated based simply on weight and height—may not account for personal differences in muscle, body type, and metabolisms. Sara Ziff, the founder of the Model Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit that aims to organize models and improve their working conditions, rejects BMI as an indicator of a model’s health. “It is unfair and unreasonable to ban healthy models from working just because they have a relatively low BMI,” she told Think Progress.

While striving for thinness is often a problem (especially when it involves the fashion industry) being thin isn’t inherently unhealthy, just like being fat isn’t an indicator of health. It is, in theory, possible to be a healthy athlete with a BMI under 18 while also suffering from anorexia with a “healthy” BMI, and legally binding models to produce a medical certificate with a government standard BMI isn’t doing anyone any favors.

Restricting access to harmful materials, like the focus of another anti-anorexia amendment that would ban sites that encourage anorexia, will likely be have a stronger impact. The skinny-model ban will only serve as an overly simplistic way of defining how women should look—and we don’t need any more of that.