France’s zero tolerance for anorexia
A shocking new Ad campaign in the usually pro-thin country has prompted calls for a law to combat the eating disorder
Alongside the catwalk shows, the gossip and the glamorous parties, Paris fashion week was dominated by a billboard this year. It wasn’t for a glossy designer brand or an upmarket beauty house: it was a black and white picture of an anorexic model crouching ashamedly on the floor.
For a country known for its obsession with skinny women (as the title of that bestseller goes: French Women Don’t Get Fat), the response has been surprising. Rather than greeting the campaign with a Gallic shrug, Valérie Boyer, the Marseilles deputy, is now trying to bring in an anti-anorexia law. It states that it will become a criminal offence to “encourage another person to seek excessive thinness . . . which could expose them to a risk of death or endanger their health”, and it has magazines, fashion shoots and skinny models in its sights. Offenders risk two years in prison or a £24,000 fine.
Of course, the French fashion industry has lambasted the proposed law. Didier Grumbach, the president of the French Couture Federation, is known to be against it. “Although we all agree anorexia is a serious illness, none of us agrees with this,” says one fashion journalist, who does not wish to be named. “A law is not the way to fight it.”
Inès de la Fressange, the former muse of Karl Lagerfeld and brand ambassador for Roger Vivier, finds the whole idea “grotesque”. “This is the first time we have had a law against an illness,” she says. “We’d be better off with a vaccine against the idiocy of this government. We know anorexia is often found among young women who have problems with their mothers and not as a result of a picture.”
Anorexia sufferers concur. One I spoke to said: “Anorexia is not about wanting to look like a model or about vanity – that’s the furthest thing from your mind. It’s about wanting to vanish and not wanting to grow up. For me, it was a desire not to grow into my mother, who I hated.”
It seems odd that France should be the first country to come up with a law to fight anorexia. Having lived in France for the past eight years, I can tell you this is a place where you are more likely to be sent to prison for being too fat than too thin. Even though they are a lot thinner than us (a friend in Paris says the main difference between a French and an Englishwoman is “about 10 kilos”), French women feel they’re never thin enough. As Brigitte Papin, beauty editor of Madame Figaro magazine, says: “All French women, without exception, will always say they have 2kg to lose.” They watch what they eat, every day – one once told me, slightly nostalgically, that she hadn’t so much as looked at a croissant for 13 years. I had two of my children here. In hospital, the post-birth meals were all low calorie: the French don’t tolerate fatness.
Yet few blame their sacred fashion industry for this pressure. In fact, few women call it pressure; they just don’t like having to squeeze into their jeans. Any pressure comes from themselves. And women with anorexia don’t blame pictures of thin models, either. Even Isabelle Caro, the anorexic featured in the campaign, says the disease is “a result of a difficult childhood”.
So how does Boyer think that outlawing images of overly thin women will reduce anorexia? “I think it will open up a discussion on the . . . erroneous presentation of the body that the fashion industry and the media show us,” she tells me. “We are shown images of 50-year-old women advertising wrinkle cream, but they have not one wrinkle. We see images of models all the time that make us frustrated with the way we look – the result is extreme thinness on the street.”
But who is going to decide whether a picture is promoting thinness or a pair of shoes? If cases are brought to court, it will be up to the judge to decide if something is guilty of inducing anorexia.
Perhaps as a pre-emptive strike, French Elle recently published pictures of women who are proud of their curves. “They look disgusting,” said a French friend. “They should be at home dieting, not displaying their blubber on the pages of Elle.”
It seems magazines are only part of the problem.
Helena Frith Powell is the author of Two Lipsticks and a Lover (Arrow £6.99)
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019