I am about to interview Valérie Boyer, the Marseille deputy who is responsible for bringing an anti-anorexia law in France. I am debating whether or not to have a shortbread biscuit with my cup of tea before she phones...
I am about to interview Valérie Boyer, the Marseille deputy who is responsible for bringing an anti-anorexia law in France. I am debating whether or not to have a shortbread biscuit with my cup of tea before she phones.
The debate in my head goes something like this.
For – "I want a shortbread biscuit"
Against – "They’re fattening"
For - "So what? I really want a shortbread biscuit and I am going to have one"
At no stage during this short debate do I think; "that model on the front cover of Elle is so thin and beautiful and I will never be like her if I have a shortbread biscuit."
But Madame Boyer and her supporters are convinced it is damaging to women to be constantly surrounded by images of thin women. She is the author of a law now being examined by the senate which states that it will become a criminal offence to "encourage another person to seek excessive thinness….which could expose them to a risk of death or endanger their health."
Offenders risk two years in prison or a fine of €30,000. Should someone die as a direct result of their actions, offenders can be imprisoned for three years and fined €45,000.
It seems odd that France should be the first country to come up with a law to fight the so-called "pro-ana" movement, which promotes anorexia as a lifestyle. Having lived in France for the last eight years, my experience is that this is a place where you are more likely to be sent to prison for being too fat than too thin.
There is constants pressure on women in France to be thin. But even though they are a lot thinner than us (a Scottish friend of mine living in Paris says the main difference between a French and an English woman is "about 10 kilos."), they’re never thin enough.
According to the French National Scientific Research Centre only 14 per cent are happy with their bodies. Brigitte Papin, Health and Beauty Editor of Madame Figaro Magazine, backs this up. "All French women, without exception, will always say they have two kilos to lose," she says. "Our most popular features are invariably the ones about slimming."
One of the topics I explored while researching a book about French women was eating and diet. I spoke to over 100 women and practically all of them told me they watched what they ate, every day. One of them told me slightly nostalgically that she hadn’t even looked at a croissant in over 13 years.
I had two of my children here. In hospital the post-birth food was good, a vast improvement on the piece of Mother’s Pride and butter I got back home, but it was all low calorie. The French don’t tolerate fatness. As the book title of that bestseller states: French Women Don’t Get Fat.
But few blame their sacred fashion industry for this pressure. In fact few would call it pressure; they just don’t like to have to squeeze into their jeans. Any pressure comes from themselves. And it seems women with anorexia don’t blame pictures of thin models either. Isabelle Caro, a 27-year-old anorexic whose haunting image some say prompted the law, says the disease is "a result of a difficult childhood".
So how does Madame Boyer think outlawing images of overly thin women will reduce the estimated 30-40,000 anorexics in France?
"I think it will open up a discussion on the whole issue of body shape and erroneous presentation of the body the fashion industry and the media show us," she tells me. "Of course the actual law is reserved for extreme cases, where people are actually encouraging young girls for example to stop eating and endanger their health, but I also feel there is a wider debate to be had."
Madame Boyer proposed the law after her teenage daughters showed her some pro-ana websites around a year ago. These websites are truly horrific. They teach adolescents to lie to their parents and give them advice like drinking lots of water before a doctor’s appointment so they appear to weigh more than they actually do. They tell girls that if they eat they will become stupid and unpopular and that the only way to get ahead is to be dangerously thin. No one seems to know who is behind the sites or what motivates them.
Here is a "secrecy tip" from one pro-ana website: "Check the fridge when nobody else is around. Find foods that you would have eaten and get rid of them, for example, three eggs and a piece of butter. Then if someone asks, you can say you had scrambled eggs and are really full. And if they check, the ingredients are gone, which reinforces your story. Consider dishes and silverware as well."
The same site is full of other loathsome advice such as the following: "Sabotage your food. Make it with too much water, too little sugar, an ingredient you don't care for. Add too much salt or pepper before you eat. You will eat less of it if it tastes bad."
"My daughters were shocked, and so was I," says Madame Boyer. "In the past couple of years we have seen an explosion of such sites in France aimed specifically at impressionable young girls."
Boyer concedes that sites outside French jurisdiction are outside their control but feels there should be a European-wide directive to work together to combat the problem. "Why don’t we all work together?" she asks. "We are shown images of 50-year-old women advertising wrinkle cream but they have not one wrinkle. We see images of models all the time that make us frustrated with the way we look and the result is extreme thinness in the street."
Professor Marcel Rufo, a specialist in child and adolescent psychology at the Salvator Hospital in Marseille agrees that media images are often distorted. "These pictures are often modified by about 60%," he says. "And while I do not believe that images of thin women can cause anorexia in a person, I do believe they can exacerbate it. I also believe the law will encourage parents to look out for the signs of anorexia and take action, just like they would take action if their young daughter was hanging out with a 35-year-old."
Not surprisingly the French fashion industry has lambasted the law. Didier Grumbach, president of the French Couture Federation is unwilling to comment on the law until it has been passed by the Senate, but is known to be against it. "Although we all agree anorexia is a serious illness, none of us agree with this," says one fashion journalist who does not wish to be named. "A law is not the way to fight it."
The former Chanel muse and head of Roger Vivier in Paris Inès de la Fressange finds the whole idea of the law "grotesque".
"This is the first time we have had a law against an illness," she tells me. "We’d be better off with a vaccine against the idiocy of this government. We know that anorexia is often found among young women who have problems with their mothers and not as a result of a picture."
One former anorexic I spoke to who wishes to remain nameless backs up what Inès says. "Anorexia is not about wanting to look like a model or vanity," she told me, "that’s the furthest thing from your mind. It’s about wanting to vanish and not wanting to grow up. For me it was a desire not to grow into my mother whom I hated."
Anorexia kills more people in France every year than any other mental disorder according to Madame Boyer who has drawn up a "voluntary charter on body image and anorexia" which the fashion industry has signed up to. But who is going to decide whether or not a picture is promoting anything but a pair of shoes? If cases are brought to court, it will be up to whatever judge is presiding over the case to decide whether or not someone is guilty of inducing anorexia.
Maybe as a pre-emptive strike Elle Magazine in France a few weeks ago published a feature about women who are proud of their curves. There were pictures to go with the text where several women talked about how they enjoyed being voluptious.
"They look disgusting," said a French friend of mine. "They should be at home dieting, not displaying their blubber on the pages of Elle."
It seems the pro-ana websites and magazines are only a minor part of the problem. Maybe if I want to fit in here (and into my jeans) I’d better not have that shortbread biscuit after all.