France Uses Fine Print to Fight Anorexia

Oct 2, 2009· 3 MIN READ

picture-11French politicians introduced legislation last week that would require advertisers to label airbrushed models with a health warning: Photograph retouched to modify the physical appearance of a person.If passed, the law would force art directors to fess up to using Photoshop. For London Fog, that would mean adding a disclaimer to a campaign featuring supermodel Gisele Bundchen in the company’s classic trench. Bundchen is pregnant, but you can’t tell. No thanks to hiding her bump with the belt.

After successfully censoring “pro-ana” Web sites last year, Valerie Boyer, a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party, proposed the law with 50 other politicians to fight a warped image of women’s bodies in the media.“These images can make people believe in a reality that often does not exist,” she said in a statement.

The law would apply to press photographs, political campaigns, art photography and images on packaging and advertisements. Breaking the law would be punishable with a fine of $54,930 or up to 50 percent of the cost of the advertisement, according to an article on Reuters. How much would French magazine Paris Match have had to pay for performing digital liposuction on a photo of Sarkozy two years ago?

If the measure passes, there’s a good chance it will be practiced—and policed—in earnest. Advertisers already abide by a well-enforced law that requires them to translate any marketing slogan in a foreign language into French. If the same law applied in the U.S., the well-worn c’est la vie would be accompanied by an asterix: That’s life!

Seem unnecessary? Maybe by some standards. But the French’s vigilance bodes well for a successful campaign against eating disorders.Dr. Michael Levine, a professor of psychology at Kenyon College in Ohio and a fellow at the Academy For Eating Disorders, thinks labeling the enhanced advertisements could be an effective strategy if four conditions are met.

1. The warning labels are salient, easy to understand and developed by teams of mass communication and public health experts.

2. The government constructs an effective media and public information campaign to announce and reinforce the practice of labeling.

3. The government works with eating disorders experts and organizations to develop materials for schools and youth groups that support and build on the labeling practice.

4. The government works with public health and communications researchers to develop ways to assess the reach and impact of the campaign.Consider anti-cigarette campaigns. Research evidence has shown that public health mass media campaigns can be successful, Levine said. Especially when they’re combined with local reinforcement, like school-based programs.

In my professional opinion, it is important to call attention, repeatedly and loudly, to the specific matter of photo-manipulation,” Levine said. “It is more important to mount a systematic campaign to call attention to and to change the major health issues that this manipulation affects, such as the sexual objectification of girls and women, the emphasis on beauty and thinness to the occlusion of health and vigor, and the promotion of both negative body image and consumerism.

Some Photoshop blunders are funny, but at whose expense? This isn’t the first time the government has meddled with media and body image. Despite what Mireille Guiliano would have you think in her 2005 bestseller “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” they do. The book glorifies the French for eating foie gras and brie with no harm to their hips while Americans fret about calories and still pack on the pounds, but the French are on track to match our obesity rate by 2020. It was 22 percent when the hardback came out, and legislators were already discussing a new government agency to fight weight gain, funded by a high-calorie or high-fat foods tax. And while they are often skinny, French women don’t necessarily have a better attitude about food. Guiliano suggested that by eating better food, they savor it more consciously. (She also congratulated les femmes for successfully balancing the pleasures of food with the desire to be attractive to French men, who like their women “very elegant, very thin.” But I digress.)

As Kate Taylor points out in Slate, an estimated one to three percent of young French women are anorexic, five percent are bulimic, and 11 percent have compulsive eating behaviors. “Eating disorders arise wherever thinness is deeply valued and admired,” Taylor said. Thanks to globalization, that seems to be everywhere.

To the same tune, France isn’t alone in trying to promote a better body image. Is it a new wind, or a fake trend?The United States, admittedly obsessed with weight loss, beauty and the like, has never been a forerunner in the effort to include models more representative of the real demographic. But when Glamour magazine ran a 3-by-3-inch photo of plus-size model Lizzie Miller flaunting a belly roll, audiences swooned.Britain’s third-largest party, the Liberal Democrats, wants to ban altered photos altogether in ads aimed at children younger than 16.

Meanwhile, some magazine editors say they are overcompensating because consumers no longer want to see stick-thin figures anyway, according to an article in The New York Times. Robin Derrick, the creative director at British Vogue, told The Times of London that he spent the first 10 years of this career making girls look thinner, and "the last 10 making them look larger."

Jo Swinson, a British Parliament member from the Liberal Democratic Party championing the proposal, said that some editing “is necessary to make a good photo.” But she wants all advertising photos rated on a scale from 1 to 4 with a label would have to include an explanation of the changes.

“If people knew they had to describe what they had altered, it might make them less likely to do it,” Swinson said.