French women don’t get fat? Jury’s still out on that. But Paris runways will stay scandalously skinny without a law to corset unscrupulous modeling agencies’ gambit for gauntness — or at least that’s the gist of controversial new legislation making its way through France’s parliament. If Socialist lawmakers get their way, too-skinny models at Paris Fashion Week will have to pack on the pounds or pack it in.
The French lower-house National Assembly examining wide-ranging health legislation this month passed an amendment that could make it illegal to employ a model considered too thin.
On the National Assembly floor, Olivier Véran, the Socialist lawmaker who introduced the amendment, explained the intention as two-fold: to protect undernourished models and to fight stereotypes that contribute to eating disorders.
To be clear, some uncertainty as to the pending law’s specifics remains. The critical criteria for precisely what counts as too-skinny is still to be decided, based on some level of body mass index (BMI) that can vary depending on age and sex. (The World Health Organization deems a BMI under 18.5 “underweight” and anything under 16 “severely thin.”)
Proponents and opponents alike worry the law would single out French modeling agencies and let foreign agencies operate with impunity, even though Véran, a neurologist by profession, has made assurances that, if passed, the law will apply to all models working in France.
For Victoire Maçon-Dauxerre, it’s at the very least a good start. Maçon-Dauxerre, 22, a former French model, quit the catwalk in dire health in 2011 after a brief, intense career. Discovered walking down the street at 17, with 126lbs on her 5-foot, 10-and-a-half-inch frame, Dauxerre’s résumé reads like a glamorous dream: Fashion week turns in New York, Paris, and Milan; shows for top houses like Celine and Alexander McQueen; photo shoots for Vogue, Lacoste, and more.
But behind the scenes, the dream was grim. She tells of living on apples and downing Diet Coke to suppress her appetite. She spent a year in the business and says she dropped to 104 pounds before she stopped modeling. A BMI, incidentally, under 15.
“Not once did I see a doctor. And I would obviously have been forbidden to walk the runways because I’d fainted a few times, because I was going to die and was so tired and undernourished,” she explains. “Afterwards, I spent three months in the hospital because I had osteoporosis, I had a 70 year-old’s skeleton, I hadn’t had my period in eight months. That’s what this does to health. Truly enormous things.”
The insidious thing about anorexia, as Maçon-Dauxerre tells it, is that it gives you an incredible sense of strength, power, control over your body. “That’s what is very, very bizarre about this illness. Suddenly you have strength you didn’t even think you had and it reveals itself at that moment,” she says. “I really didn’t eat for eight months, or anyway three apples a day. And yet I was doing 15 casting calls a day and running all over New York in [seven-inch] heels, traveling everywhere, jet lag, and yet I’m not dead and I survived.”
She says she was never told she couldn’t eat. Only that she had to fit into a size 2 and it was up to her to sort out how. “Every time I lost weight, I was applauded,” she says. “They see you so much like an object and like a hanger. They take your measurements all the time,” she says. But the only thing the industry wants, she suggests, is the right fit. “If you get into a [size 2], then very good. You’re perfect. That’s the criterion.”
“There is such an enormous code of silence in this milieu that is extremely hard to crack. That’s why I find it great that this law [is being passed]. But it has to be the first step.”
As a teen, Maçon-Dauxerre says she saw girls in magazines and “necessarily” wanted to look like them. “And the boys want their chicks to look like the models in the magazines. So it necessarily influences the whole young population today and that’s what’s really dangerous because it creates anorexia,” she believes. “And that’s what I think is important to underline. It’s not just an amendment for the models, but for all the young girls and young women in France.”
But Isabelle Saint-Felix, secretary general of France’s National Union of Modeling Agencies, doesn’t accept the premise that skinny models spark anorexia. Or indeed, that most thin models are unhealthy as a rule. She regrets that the state hasn’t followed through on green-lighting the profession’s efforts to regulate itself.
“It is in the interest of modeling agencies — French, European, American, all of them — that a model be healthy to do work that sometimes is difficult,” Saint-Felix argues. “Because when the models walk the runways in New York, then right away in London, then right away in Milan, and finally arrive in Paris, it’s clear they have to be in good health, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to work at that pace.”
The union executive allows that there are bulimic models, toiling to fit into tiny sizes at all costs. But she believes they are rarities, like doping athletes. “There are women who eat normally who are very, very thin, and that’s why they become models,” she says. “One doesn’t get thin to become a model; one is a model because she is tall and thin. It works in that direction, I think.”
Saint-Felix suggests measuring models’ BMI alone risks missing that point. “If you have a low BMI and you have low blood pressure and you’re losing your hair and you have dental problems, [that’s] an ensemble that can lead to a conclusion of poor health. But BMI as the sole reference point is a mistake, I think, because there are people who are, constitutionally, born like that. They are very thin.”
And in any case, Saint-Felix suggests, hanging the onus on agencies is backward. They are only responding to demand from designers, magazines and photographers. “If tomorrow there was demand for [5’3″] models who weigh [120 pounds], the modeling agencies would have to find [5’3″] models who weigh [120 pounds],” she says. If at the next show, they wanted models for one or two sizes up, things would change. “That’s all,” she says “It’s not complicated.”
And anyway, Saint-Felix notes, 90 percent of models are foreigners just passing through France. A law that only applies in France won’t make any difference, she maintains. Indeed, Jean-Michel Huet, a Paris psychoanalyst who treats patients with eating disorders, likens banning skinny models in France alone to prohibition in the United States. “I hear it didn’t stop America from drinking. And the Canadians and Mexicans got rich at the time,” he quips.
Huet questions the bill’s logic, too. “Clinically, it’s idiotic. There are no serious studies that prove that only models influence anorexic girls.” He notes that anorexia “was discovered in 1873. In 1873, ladies were frankly — how would you say? — plump by our standards.”
“I’ve been doing this for 33 years and patients who tell me they wanted to get thin to be like this or that model are extremely rare. Yes, to be thin, it’s true. But why models?” he asks. “They could ban prima ballerinas, who aren’t very fat. They could ban singers, actresses, Modiglianis, Giacomettis, too. That makes a lot of folks to ban.”
And anyway, he says, “What are we going to do about all the models around the world? Are we going to create a French brigade to undress and weigh them?” he laughs, allowing that there would be a lot of volunteers. “And how often would they be weighed? Every month, every two months, every three months?”
The psychoanalyst questions measuring models’ BMI alone because there are “constitutionally thin” people. And he notes that BMI can be cheated. “You drink a bottle of mineral water and exactly afterwards you weigh 1.5kg (3.3 pounds) more. That’s an old anorexic trick. It’s well known,” he says. “You’ve gained [3.3 pounds] in less than three minutes. And you’ve lost them within three hours.”
Huet says anorexics themselves resent the thinking that they are ill because of skinny models. “They take it very, very badly and I understand them. They feel profoundly humiliated to think that it’s because they saw three models that they will become anorexic. It’s really treating them like bimbos.”
The specialist questions the Socialist government’s motives, wondering whether singling out the luxury industry isn’t a ploy for leftist votes. He believes the law will either never pass or will get buried and never applied. “Frankly, if the French government had the good sense to open a few more specialized units for young women with eating disorders, I’d applaud that, no matter the political stripe,” he says. “But this is just hype.”
The erstwhile model Maçon-Dauxerre agrees, in fact, with many of the critiques the law’s opponents levy. But she still backs it.The former catwalker concurs that BMI isn’t enough as a standalone metric, but it is a start. “It allows a basic criterion and that’s very important. But that’s not what is going to discern anorexia,” she concedes. “What’s needed are real physicals. For example, I know a dentist can discern whether you make yourself vomit.”
And Maçon-Dauxerre agrees the onus needs to be broadened. “It is the designers who ask for thin models. It isn’t the agencies who say ‘we only have thin models,'” she says. “If Karl Lagerfeld decided to say I want models who are [size 8] and not [size 4], the agencies would find [size 8] models.”
“I don’t see just how finding healthy models would change much. Having a BMI of 18 means that for me at [5’10” and a half], I could weigh [130 pounds]. That’s very, very slim. It means I’d take a [size 6],” she calculates. “So I don’t think it would change the image of fashion to have young girls that are [size 6] instead of [size 4 or 2]. It would just be prettier because we wouldn’t see all the bones and we would see that they aren’t sick models.”
“It always makes me laugh when people say that this amendment is discriminatory because there isn’t anything more discriminatory than the criteria for entering a modeling agency,” Maçon-Dauxerre says. “And it’s also extremely discriminatory to say to a young girl, ‘You can’t become a woman. You must have the body of a little girl.'”
Today, after a degree in philosophy and theater from the Sorbonne, Maçon-Dauxerre has left centerstage to work in the wings. She’s a fundraising assistant at Shakespeare’s iconic Globe Theatre in London. Maybe the designers would do well to take a page from Shakespeare and hire young boys to play the women on the runway? “Exactly,” she says. “Exactly!”