France’s Folly: Banning Skinny Models and Mandating Retouching Warnings

On December 18th, a twofold French law was passed requiring a minimum weight for all French models and also requiring that all retouching that affects body size be labeled. Those who employ models who are underweight could face six months in jail and fines of €75,000 (~$82,000). Those breaking the retouching law face fines of up to €37,500 (~$41,000) or up to 30% of expenses relating to the advertisement. Those are some harsh penalties. This law is ostensibly to address the epidemic of eating disorders in France.

Fashion Show

I have mixed feelings on this. Very mixed feelings. I support the intentions behind this law, but I am incredibly opposed to its implementation.

I am an advocate of education and of industry reform in the name of creating a healthier media environment that doesn’t contribute to social ills like eating disorders and poor body image. However, I don’t support brute force, criminalizing, discriminatory legislation. That’s my short and to the point version of this article.

On Model Size and Health

While the standards for weight and health have not yet been outlined to the best of my knowledge (from what I’ve read models will need a clean bill of health from a doctor, but the requirements have not yet been specified), most countries who have already legislated have based their laws on BMI, which is not a reliable scale. Furthermore, my own personal view is that we should be advocating for greater diversity in size representation. That means all sizes, not just larger sizes.

Keep in mind that in various times during history, skinny women have been the ones mocked for their size. Size ideals have fluctuated. I do not believe in simply reversing our current size paradigm so that large is good and skinny is bad. We’ve held that standard in the past and going back is only exchanging one social ill for another. Better to move into a new era of true universal body acceptance rather than continuing a cycle that has been going for centuries if not millenia.

I believe in pushing for true diversity and the path to that is rewarding designers and agencies who are inclusive of larger models alongside the smaller models, not instead of them. Instead, the French government wants to directly penalize and discriminate against models who happen to have smaller body types who are just trying to make a living.

That said, yes, agencies reported for encouraging eating disorders should be penalized and I have mixed feelings on continuing to employ models known to have eating disorders. I know of agencies who will make severely malnourished models stop working until they get help and I think that’s a reasonable course of action. On the other hand, I don’t believe in blacklisting models permanently if they’re sick because eating disorders are an illness and I don’t believe in stigmatizing and punishing mental health issues. That’s discrimination.

Indeed, there are serious health concerns here and they shouldn’t be ignored. However, as I believe with overweight people, I believe with underweight people. Health is between a person and their doctor and it is not a straightforward thing to determine. It’s certainly not a number on a scale or chart. There is more to it than that.

Larger people get up in arms when people pull out the “but your size is bad for your health” argument. Well then don’t pull it out against smaller people. Health is not determined by size. When it comes down to it, health is a highly individualized private matter that is between each person and their health care provider. It’s not between an individual and the government, it’s not between an individual and their employer, and it’s certainly not between an individual and the public. End of story. Law makers have no business here. If it were the U.S. this law would be an outright HIPAA violation and it’s not okay.

On Labeling Retouching

On the surface, I’m okay with discouraging size retouching. In fact, my next 4 articles are about size retouching. However, the law requires that the text on retouched photos read “photograph edited” or “photograph retouched” equating size retouching to all retouching, which is simply misrepresentative of the field, generalizing all retouching to mean acts that distort body types. We do more than make people skinnier. If, and only if, we are going to label size retouching, label it correctly and precisely. “This model has been retouched to be skinnier.”

That said, this is a case where I don’t believe legislation is the answer at all. We’re talking about art here and we’re talking about treating an art form like a drug akin to alcohol or cigarettes complete with something that is basically a surgeon general’s warning. If we weren’t lazy about teaching children about art, we wouldn’t have this systemic problem of misunderstanding imagery. On the flipside, if we as a community were actually having a conversation about ethics and establishing codes of conduct within the photo and retouching industries, we wouldn’t have as many abuses of our craft. Education and reform are what I believe in. Not criminalization of an art form. Not fines and legal disclaimers.

Never in the history of art has imagery been a direct mirror on reality. Even in photojournalism, cameras do not see the way the human eye sees. Photojournalists try their best to reflect what was actually visible on the scene, but it still isn’t reality. And when we venture away from the documentary arts, we’re completely into the realm of fabrication and fantasy, no matter what art form we’re talking about. If we look back in history, painters have never put fine print on their canvases saying “I conveniently forgot to paint in that pimple Queen Elizabeth had on Tuesday.” or “King Henry had me shave off a few pounds.” Yet we simply don’t have the expectation that what we see is exactly what we get when looking at non-photographic art forms. We’re never going to ask painters or sculptors or designers for the same fidelity to reality that we ask of photographic illustrators.

Portrait_of_Catherine,_Duchess_of_CambridgeIn fact, there was a huge uproar when a painter was TOO true to reality in a very recent high profile situation. The first official portrait of Kate Middleton, painted by Paul Elmsley, was met with outrage when it was unveiled. People criticized it for making her look bad. They said it made her look old and dour, washed out, even “vampiric” and “malevolent”. Elmsley is a realistic painter and painted the Duchess from photographic reference. It is likely that it is a true-to-life depiction. In fact, one criticism, verbatim, was that Elmsley was operating like a “photocopier”. (American theologian/aesthetic specialist Joseph McKenzie.) In truth, when compared side by side to photographs of Kate Middleton in similar light, and specifically when compared to the exact photographic reference that Elmsley was working from, the painting is a fairly accurate likeness. The fact is, people were outraged that Elmsley didn’t go out of his way to flatter Kate Middleton according to socially agreed upon beauty norms, but rather painted her as she was. He painted exactly what he saw in front of him and faced terrible backlash for what was essentially a painter’s version of an un-retouched photograph.

This case of Kate Middleton’s portrait unambiguously speaks to a double standard between painted portraits and photographic ones. We are not only accepting of painted portraits embellishing beauty and downplaying flaws, but we are outraged when they fail to do so. On the other hand, we not only grow angry when artists working in the photographic field operate with the same aesthetics in mind, we are beginning to penalize them through the legal system.

Kate Middleton Portrait Comparison

The problem here isn’t the retouching. The problem here is second rate art education. The problem is a bias against a particular art form due to misunderstanding of the new, refusal to learn or to teach or to attempt to understand a new craft or set of tools. It’s a fear of change and it’s frankly a witch hunt. People see a social ill—and I won’t argue that there is a social problem here—and they want a scapegoat. But the aesthetics haven’t changed with the rise of retouching. The problematic beauty standards stand apart. They are entirely divorced from retouching. You can easily observe that painters and sculptors adhere to the same set of problematic beauty standards that tell us there’s only one way to be beautiful and if you read a book, you will see the same kind of beauty described time and again. Beauty standards are a societal problem, not a retouching problem.

Retouching isn’t like alcohol and cigarettes. Consuming retouched media is not going to give you anorexia the way that ingested adult substances give you lung cancer or liver disease. There’s no inherent bodily effect. What retouching does to a person is what any art does to a person: it causes you to think. The same way that encountering any experience in life causes you to think. It is no different than any sensory experience. We have just failed, as a society, to provide any context for how to intellectually process visual arts. This is a breakdown in education; a failure to fund the arts in schools or to fund museums and cultural educational programs. To be fair, it’s also a failure in the existing art establishment’s willingness or ability to keep up with a changing art landscape and teach new art forms. So, even where art education IS available, little to no information is available about digital art forms or commercial/mass media.

In Closing

Now, I will admit that I have a bias here as one of my entire goals in life is to educate and reform when it comes to retouching, photography, and fashion media. I believe wholeheartedly that this is the path to a healthier media landscape. I believe in photography and digital imaging taking their places in the greater narrative of art history. However, I concede that photography and digital imaging are still in their infancy and practitioners need to continue engaging in a dialog about issues surrounding our craft. That’s an internal affair. Simultaneously, we should be doing outreach about what it is we’re creating and doing our part to help with that art education I’m advocating.

What I don’t believe is that legislation changes any minds. Government force doesn’t change things on an emotional or intellectual level, so it isn’t useful. All it does is penalize, cause resentment, shift media centers away from legislated areas, damage the art economy, and set back creative expression and free speech. Consider the very simplistic example of dog training: almost every dog trainer knows that negative, disciplinary training simply doesn’t work. What does work is positive reinforcement. Teach and reward good behavior. Don’t punish bad behavior. Elevate what you see as positive role models. Promote and fund inspiring and inclusive art that affirms diverse beauty. Send positive messages and support the people whose work promotes ideas you like. It will get you further. Personal agenda aside, this law is going to be counter-productive. It may be well intentioned, having high hopes of reducing the incidence of eating disorders, but it simply misses its target.

Yes, eating disorders and body image problems are at epidemic levels. Something needs to be done. However, legislating body types and retouching will not address any of our deeply held social prejudices. These laws do nothing but discriminate against a group of people and an art form without thought to what actually causes beauty norms or how we can change those paradigms. These laws are an empty gesture at best: a desperate and broad-brush effort to affect change by attacking mere symptoms of the real problem. Maybe if we looked deeper and really studied these problems, looked at history, psychology, media, art–took a truly interdisciplinary approach–we could figure out the real root of all of this rather than making arbitrary laws that penalize and discriminate against blameless entities.

Legislation and criminalization solve nothing.


Sources: CNN, Fstoppers, Women’s Wear DailyNew York Times, PetaPixel
If you can read French, here you go: AMENDEMENT N°2310

The photo at the top of this article is a stock image for illustrative purposes only

Images of Kate Middleton are believed to be Fair Use under editorial commentary