French lawmakers have moved to criminalize the glorification of anorexia, and to ban websites — commonly referred to as pro-anorexia or pro-ana — promoting "thinspiration" to those affected by eating disorders.
According to the new legislation, those found guilty of encouraging "excessive thinness" by pushing "prolonged dietary restrictions" will face up to a year in prison and a 10,000 Euro ($10,880) fine.
The new measure is an amendment to the draft public health law, which is currently being discussed by deputies in the National Assembly — the lower house of French parliament. It is just one of several measures that are being debated as part of the anti-anorexia package within the proposed legislation.
Alongside a ban on pro-anorexia websites, lawmakers have also backed an amendment to regulate the modeling industry, which would require modeling agencies to provide medical certificates proving that a model's body mass index (BMI) does not fall below the acceptable weight standards.
Another amendment would require publications to clearly label any images that have been digitally altered to make models appear thinner — even banning some images found to present unhealthy beauty standards. Agencies that violate the law could be punished with fines of up to 75,000 Euros ($81,600) and up to six months in jail.
The amendments were written by socialist deputy Olivier Véran, who is also a practicing neurologist. Speaking to VICE News on Thursday, Véran said that anorexia — a psychiatric disorder characterized by a fear of weight gain and self-starvation — affects between 30,000 and 40,000 people in France.
The legislation specifically targets the multitude of pro-anorexia sites and forums, which are often seen to glamorize excessive skinniness by promoting unhealthy and unrealistic concepts such as the "thigh gap," a visible rib cage, or jutting hip and chest bones.
Many of these web-based communities actively encourage eating disorders — which are often referred to by their pet names Ana (anorexia) and Mia (bulimia) — while some even offer self-starvation advice, ranging from "special diet wish list" to ready-made lists of excuses "to avoid having to eat."
Some members even organize pro-ana games where members compete with each other to lose weight, collecting points for obeying various self-starvation methods.
But some experts have challenged the new amendment and denounced the pro-ana crackdown, arguing that many of these blogs are an important outlet for vulnerable victims of eating disorders, who rely on them for a shared sense of community and for emotional support.
Fred Pailler is one of the authors of a study looking at why banning pro-ana websites might not be such a good idea. According to the report — which was undertaken by a team of 15 experts over the course of three years — pro-ana websites tend to "regulate themselves," and some have even been found to provide "support and assistance in recovery."
Pailler told VICE News that the ban on pro-ana websites is "counterproductive." The new amendments, he said, revealed profound ignorance of the pro-anorexia genre.
"It is impossible to distinguish between a website that glorifies anorexia and [one that presents] what is essentially a first-hand account," said Pailler, who fears the new legislation will outlaw a potentially useful platform for sufferers.
"Of course, they contain images of overly-skinny models, but they do more than just value anorexia," he told VICE News. "We've noticed that the conversations regulate themselves. The more these women communicate, the more they moderate each other."
Véran agrees that it is important to distinguish between those sites glamorizing self-starvation and those providing a support mechanism to sufferers. Still, said Véran, the guidelines regulating these online communities should be "determined by the law." The aim of the legislation, he added, was not "to put anorexia sufferers behind bars."
Pailler also explained that an outright ban on the sites would ultimately prove inefficient. "The authors of these blogs tend to duplicate them anyway, because hosts like Yahoo already shut them down," he said. "From 2010 to 2012, half of the blogs we studied ended up duplicated."
For Pailler, the amendment requiring magazines to label photoshopped images is nothing short of "an insult to people's intelligence."
"The interactions we have had with pro-anas show that the women know the images are photoshopped," said the researcher.
The real challenge, said Pailler, is figuring out a way for medical professionals to interact with these online communities, "not in a prescriptive manner but with an approach that is conducive to listening and advising.
Once deputies have finished discussing the bill, they will submit the draft law to the senate for approval.
Image via Flickr / Benjamin Watson