The ban it brigade ride again

Fat woman holding anti-thin people sign
If you're thin you're not coming in - classy

One of the things that annoys me the most is politicians who think that the criminal law is a way to solve all of society’s ills.  Quite often I’m annoyed that politicians are claiming that the thing they are discussing is one of society’s ills but that’s a different story.

The thing that is annoying me today is the French and Caroline Noakes MP, she heads the All Parliamentary Group on Body Image, which sounds at once both a very specific topic and yet one with a very wide reach.  The French have created a criminal offence of using a thin model in a fashion show and Ms Noakes wants to introduce the same crime here.

In France those caught breaking the law face up to six-months imprisonment – the reports I’ve read are unclear whether that means prison for the organiser, the model booker or the model herself.  Who knows, maybe if we’re going to be really tough on crimes like this we should be imprisoning anybody caught looking at underweight models too?

As I understand it, the law in France bans the use of models with a BMI of 18.5 or below.  For those who don’t know BMI is a really bad way to measure the weight of an individual.  BMI is a measure of body mass across populations of people, for individuals it can be wholly unreliable.  Arnold Schwarzenegger is 6’2” and in his prime weighed around 235lbs giving him a BMI of 30.1 and placing him in the obese category.  Andrew Flintoff, the former England cricketer and elite sportsman, is well into the overweight category.

The reasoning behind such a crime is that thin models are a bad influence on young girls, which causes them to feel bad that they are not skinny enough and ultimately causes eating disorders.  That’s an overly simplistic description but it is not without some merit.  But, does that make a new criminal offence a good idea?

Anti-fat shaming advocates are wide spread and, like many noisy minority pressure groups, are becoming very influential in the media and, apparently, among politicians.  The irony of anti-fat shaming advocates is that what they campaign against for fat people is precisely what they do to skinny people – not long ago I read an account by a naturally skinny teenage girl who had seen one of the anti-fat shaming advocates on TV and was feeling pretty shitty about herself for being skinny; I doubt she is the only one.

Being underweight is bad for you, but let’s be honest it’s not nearly as serious an epidemic for the country as being overweight.  That’s not to say that people who are underweight and need help shouldn’t get it but the campaign against underweight models by anti-fat shaming advocates has a darker side in my opinion.  It isn’t aimed at helping those who are underweight but rather at diverting attention away from the real problem out society faces, which is the obesity epidemic.  With the greatest of respect to anti-fat shaming advocates everywhere, they do tend to be on the larger side and many are quite proud of it too.

Last year 2,560 people were admitted to hospital witheating disorders – while this doesn’t necessarily mean underweight the vast majority of eating disorder diagnoses involve being underweight rather than overweight.  In 2011/12 there were 11,750 hospitaladmissions “with a primary diagnosis of obesity” and that number appears to be rising. 

Presumably campaigners would agree that being underweight is unhealthy and that the point of their campaign is to improve health.  If so a law banning underweight models sounds like only half a job.  Surely if the aim is to promote healthy role models then plus size models should also be outlawed?  In fact, given that obesity led to more than four times as many hospital admissions than being underweight you might be forgiven for thinking that if the government is going to ban either it should be the promotion of overweight bodies as the norm.

Before anybody tells me that underweight models are far more common than overweight ones let me just stop you there for a minute because there are plenty of plus size models and model agencies.  If the ban is going to have any impact it needs to extend beyond the catwalk and cover newspapers, magazines and TV else what’s the point since those are the places most models are seen?

Even if you think that thin women shouldn’t be seen by small children then I have to tell you that the criminal law is not the tool to use to bring about that particular social change.  Criminal law is great for making the point that killing your neighbour isn’t acceptable but it’s really bad at trying to change what society views as attractive.


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