As a British woman and body confidence campaigner living in Paris, I read reports that the French National Assembly has this weekend passed a new health reform bill aimed at tackling anorexia with a real mixture of emotions.
The bill aims to clamp down on pro anorexia (pro-ana) websites with measures to fine or imprison those who promote excessive thinness.
There are also new rules to ban labels and designers from using underweight models, and compulsory labelling on photographs that have been digitally altered to make models appear thinner.
I never believed in myself as a teen. I thought I was ugly and a loser in every respect. Stopping eating was a way of controlling one thing in my life, when everything else was out of control. But I also know that when I was vulnerable, seeing an ad with a stick thin model made me feel worse.
Even a few years ago when I covered Paris Fashion Week for the Huffington Post, I felt dumpy and inadequate – the ambiance was also anything but healthy. It felt akin to a meatmarket. Girls were pushed and shoved, prima-donna stylists had hissy fits over nothing and the front row were sat judging the clothes horses that paraded before them.
In the UK, I am an ambassador for the government-backed Be Real campaign – a movement launched last year to drive greater body acceptance amongst women. In my role at Be Real, I have been party to research into the national state of our body confidence and there are some truly concerning statistics about epidemic levels of body anxiety amongst women, young and old, and how it affects their day-to-day lives.
The French proposals are aimed at tackling the estimated 30,000-40,000 women in France with an eating disorder. They are also measures that may help the millions of women who, while not in the grips of an eating disorder, are having their day-to-day lives affected by the sense that their bodies don’t live up to the socially prescribed ideal.
It is particularly interesting that these laws are being put forward in France – dubbed the country of ‘belles femmes’. Having lived in Paris for the last 5 years, I have discovered that the national obsession with style and beauty can come at a high price.
When I first moved here I was staggered by the absolute obsession with appearance. You are viewed and assessed from head to toe when you walk in a restaurant, a cafe, or even the boulangerie. In some arrondissements of Paris you can barely leave the house without a blow dry. You can’t help falling over anti-cellulite tablets and slimming potions in the pharmacy and most women are permanently ‘au regime’ (on a diet).
In fact, my own first bout of eating issues ocurred in Paris when I was 19 and living in a shared flat. The owner of the flat was a stick thin mum aged 50. She would berate her daughter for eating bread and would serve up spinach or green beans instead. Remaining slender was prioritised highly, and that was 20 years ago.
The struggle for models
The French National Assembly has focused on the portrayal of models in the legislation. Models are often held up as the pinnacle of female beauty. They represent the gold standard in an increasingly image-obsessed world. Many would assume that models themselves are oozing confidence, but I have learnt, having met a few, that they are as complexed about their bodies and faces as the average woman. Growing up, they have often been taller than their classmates at school and have often been picked on for looking different. And upon entering the world of modelling, they have often had to manage a steep and often overnight rise to fame at a very young age and that in itself can be vertiginous.
As an author of self-esteem related stories for children and teens, I have been fortunate enough to discuss with some model agents how they care for their models well being. Elite Models, who run an international contest to find the next big modelling faces, actually include a mentoring component in their selection process.
The questions of insecurity we all face – am I good enough? am I pretty enough? are my legs slim enough? are multiplied for models, because they are judged above all by their physical form. The irony that those held up as the ideal, struggle with the same insecurities as the rest of us, hit me hard. Because if models aren’t confident in their own skin, whatever can be done to ensure that women in general are freed from a life of constant body insecurity? And I guess one of the answers lies in the scrutiny our bodies receive today. Models become anxious about their bodies because every day they are judged on it and their work depends on it, but what about the rest of us?
In our highly visual society, with an every increasing array of image-based social media, we are also putting ourselves on show far more than ever before. Our modern lives mean we are often on our own self-constructed catwalk.
One thing is clear though, whether you are in Paris, London or New York, it is impossible to be a top model if you aren’t very thin. It’s also extremely rare to be a top actress or TV personality if you are not far, far smaller than the average woman. And the quest for the perfect model frame to hang clothes off can be at the expense of well-being. The social media-led trend of the ‘thigh gap’ comes straight from the catwalk. If you’re nearly 6 foot tall and weight 7 stone, maybe you will have a thigh gap. But for 99 per cent of the population, our thighs touch each other. So why is this a problem for so many of us?
The future of body confidence
Unfortunately, young girls take these images and ‘rules’ much more literally and it can lead to extreme behaviour.
Taking this into account, laws to ensure models themselves stay a healthy weight, that digitally altered images are labelled and that pro-ana websites are regulated has to be a step forward.
But, for me, the big question remains: is legislation like this enough to affect real change? Will it actually result in a revolution in attitudes to the female body, how it is portrayed across the media and how women feel about themselves? Because right now, that is what is needed.