are skinny model laws really the solution to fashion’s body image issue?

As a California bill aimed at fighting eating disorders advances, we ask why the focus isn't on widening the spectrum of acceptable body types rather than narrowing it.

by Hannah Ongley
08 April 2016, 1:55pm

Law responds to social change, but it can also help shape it. A new bill currently being floated in California purports to do both these things. The bill in question, which advanced one step closer towards becoming legislation on Wednesday, is aimed at addressing eating disorders both on the runway and off. If it passes, models will be required to present a certificate of health before they can be booked for jobs, and brands will be required to treat their models as employees. It's not just aimed at reducing eating disorders amongst models but at protecting the mental health of impressionable consumers of fashion images and runway shows. "The goal of the bill is not only to protect the health of the workers themselves, but also to help young people who emulate models," said the bill's author, state Assemblyman Marc Levine, a Democrat who represents the Marin County suburbs of San Francisco. 

Bills such as these can take years to come into effect. Trends in fashion and in the public consumption of digital images, which the bill aims to address, change a whole lot faster. The original anti-thinspiration law that France passed into law exactly one year ago was first proposed back in 2010 — in response to the untimely death of 28-year-old former model Isabelle Caro, who lost her battle with anorexia shortly after posing for a billboard alerting people to the dangers of the devastating disease. 2010 was also the year Instagram was born, though the app's game-changing effect on fashion and culture in general was not fully felt until a couple of years later. The consensus on social media in 2016 is that more visibility should be given to larger bodies rather than less visibility to thin ones. In other words, we should be broadening the spectrum of what's deemed "acceptable," not making it even narrower. Should the law reflect this stance instead?

Earlier this week Gucci came under fire for featuring an "unhealthily thin" model in a set of images from the brand's Cruise 2016 campaign. 16-year-old Avery Blanchard was singled out by Britain's Advertising Standards Authority, who banned the ad in response to complaints, deeming that her pose and proportions amounted to "irresponsible" advertising. "Further, her pose elongated her torso and accentuated her waist so that it appeared to be very small," added the ASA. "We also considered that her sombre facial expression and dark makeup, particularly around her eyes, made her face look gaunt. For those reasons, we considered that the model leaning against the wall appeared to be unhealthily thin in the image, and therefore concluded that the ad was irresponsible." 

The shared aim of the Advertising Standards Authority and California's bill is certainly 110% admirable. Eating disorders are havoc-wrecking diseases, and disturbingly prevalent in the modeling world. But does the focus on models' weight shift the blame away from powerful agencies and brands and onto the young girls they're supposed to represent? Some of the most disturbing stories concerning models and body weight have agency pressure at their core, and — in the cases we hear about — the model's refusal or plain inability to conform. Where are the laws dealing with the visibility of models who aren't a size zero? The backlash to the Gucci ad would likely have been a lot quieter had a plus-size model (or even a size 4 model) also been featured in the ad. In fact its reception by fashion people and the general public probably would have been rapturously positive. 

Maybe the ever-increasing influence of social media is enough of an incentive for designers to increase the scope of acceptable body types. Refusal to comply with the California law could get brands slapped with a fine of up to $82,000 and a prison sentence of up to six months. But the reality is that there are countless ways that rich and powerful agencies/brands/designers can circumvent such punishment. And in many cases, a fine and a slap on the wrist can have far less ruinous effects than appearing socially out-of-touch on Twitter or Instagram. 


Text Hannah Ongley 

body image
Eating Disorders