The Chamber of Deputies, France's lower house of parliament, recently adopted a bill making it illegal for anyone to "incite extreme thinness;" the latest and strongest of a series of measures proposed in the wake of a 2006 anorexia-linked death of a Brazilian model. The legislation would allow sanctions against those responsible for a magazine photo of a model whose "thinness altered her health." Two years ago, a Spanish ban proclaimed that models with a body mass index - BMI - under 18 would not be allowed on the runway. (As comparison, the average American woman is 5' 4" and weighs 140, a BMI of 24, considered in the normal range of 18-25. The average American model is 5' 11," weighs 117, and has a BMI of 16.)
These "anti-thinness" regulations are partially in response to the proliferation of "pro-ana" websites. "Pro-ana" is the promotion of anorexia nervosa as a lifestyle choice rather than an eating disorder and basically affects young women in affluent countries. It has prompted efforts throughout the international fashion industry and health community to address the health repercussions of using ultra-thin models.
Attempting to improve public health is indeed a lofty objective; yet a larger predicament, unable to be affected by legislation, resides underneath. Where does pride in appearance end and unhealthy body image commence? In effect, what is "beautiful?"
In the 19th century, women used whitening agents with lead oxide to appear striking. In ancient China, the four-inch "lotus foot" was considered the sign of perfect beauty. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the wealthy used belladonna eye drops to dilate their pupils, generating an "attractive" doe-like appearance. Lack of education could be blamed for such poor choices in those days. Is that still the case now?
Marleen S. Williams, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, who researches the media's effect on anorexic women, says, fewer eating disorders take place in "cultures that value full-bodied women." So, why - in our educated, enlightened civilization - do so many young women crave the unhealthful, emaciated, "heroin chic" icon? Is an attractive corpse more desirous than an "unappealing" reflection in the mirror? Do these frustrated girls destroy their lives because of poor nutritional education, misguided societal pressures, inappropriate role models, or over-indulgent well-meaning parents? How is equilibrium achieved in the yin and yang of body image and good health?
I am not wise enough to answer these. Yet, I do know that nothing is inherently incorrect in an aspiration to look attractive, feel handsome, or in the desire to be wanted. Our body is a gift, a miraculous creation; its positive, healthful appearance is one indication of self-care and "pride of ownership." Yet, it must be balanced with common sense, and more importantly, an understanding that true beauty emanates from within; it is not found among the pages of a glossy magazine, in flickering television images, nor downloaded from the web. Our shape or size might impinge on our health; but has no bearing on our value, and no amount of legal regulation will ever change that reality. Everything will appear unattractive on the outside of our skin until we accept the beauty that resides inside our skin.
As a weight loss consultant and WW leader, I repeatedly remind people who are frustrated with "how slow it comes off," that the key is to be "healthy," not "skinny." If you lose your weight but damage your health, what good was it? We get so caught up in the small things (no pun intended), we forget the big picture.
Thanks Mary Ann (my wife's name too -- with same spelling) for the comments.