What France's Model Ban Teaches The US About Our Clothing Companies

When we think of runway models strutting the latest fashion trends in Paris or Milan, we generally think of tall, attractive and extremely skinny women.

Well, the days of these models just might be coming to an end.

France and Denmark have both introduced initiatives that would constrain the types of models fashion designers can use. These initiatives set a floor on weight restrictions by requiring models to be above a set body mass index (BMI).

BMIs are considered to be good indicators of how healthy somebody is based upon his or her relative weight and height.

The French initiative is a proposed legislative bill banning models with BMIs of less than 18. If passed, it would impose criminal fines and even jail time on companies that employ models with too low BMIs.

As a gauge, Kate Moss, Gisele Bündchen and Naomi Campbell have BMIs of 15, 16 and 17, respectively.

The Denmark initiative is a bit more conservative. Rather than a legislative bill that would be binding law, several fashion companies in Denmark have banded together and pledged to promote healthy weight for their models.

The so-called Danish Fashion Ethical Charter would require companies to have frequent health checkups for their models and keep healthy food available at photo shoots.

The purpose of both the French and Denmark proposals is clearly to promote the health and working conditions of the models.

(The theory being too low of a BMI measure is indicative of unhealthy weight, and fashion companies have been placing too much emphasis on thin models, which is leading to unhealthy outcomes.)

The Bill and Charter are designed, in part, to fight the prevalence of anorexia and eating disorders in the modeling industry. From this perspective, the proposals seem benign enough.

After all, it’s important for a company to take care of the well being of its biggest stakeholders: its employees.

But, the French law, in particular, is also aimed at combatting eating disorders and anorexia at large. The drafters of the law have said it is also intended to change the unhealthy ideals of body standards prevalent in France.

It’s estimated that around 30,000 French citizens suffer from eating disorders, and according to the World Health Organization, the average BMI for French women is 23.2 (Western Europe's lowest).

The law seems to have, at its core, an assumption about the fashion industry. Mainly, it is that French designers are affecting the body images of average citizens by using models who are extremely thin and potentially unhealthy.

People’s perspectives of beauty are being shaped and skewed by these fashion designers and models, and the law is attempting to scale back that effect. But, this isn’t an issue reserved for French fashion designers.

Companies (in particular, ones that are retail-oriented), due to their size and their popularity, have become authorities on certain social issues, and as such, have the power to mold and build public perception of these same exact issues.

In the fashion case, they skew social norms of beauty and body type, and these socially powerful companies are having significant effects on their customers.

Take, for example, Lululemon: The company has arguably become an authority on fitness, fashion and beauty. Through prevalence in yoga studios, gyms and online, it is setting the standard for what a fit, attractive yoga practitioner looks like.

Potentially even more problematic has been the clothing brand, Brandy Melville.

The company only makes clothes in small women’s sizes (0-2), and marks each article of clothing with "one size fits all," even though the average women’s size in the US is 14.

Like Lululemon, being able to "fit" into and wear Brandy Melville’s clothes has become a marker of beauty.

Several tweets and Facebook posts show this brand is affecting how women view themselves. Posts like, "I fit into Brandy’s jeans, I know I’m hot," "Brandy’s pants don’t fit me, need to lose weight so I can get right," and "walking into Brandy, makes me feel fat" show the company is socially powerful.

The French law is an attempt to address the effects of socially powerful companies.

The problem is striking the right balance between promoting individual profit maximization activities and protecting individuals (albeit paternalistically) from potential negative externalities associated with these companies.

Allowing a company to brand itself in any way it sees fit is a staple of free enterprise, especially in the United States. Yet, these seemingly harmless branding exercises have very real effects.

Abercrombie & Fitch recently argued in front of the US Supreme Court because it discriminated against a Muslim woman on the theory that she did not fit its “Look Policy.” This “Look Policy” is meant to embody its preppy clothing and brand.

The US’s robust First Amendment jurisprudence would likely be used to combat any law (like the French one) that limits how companies can affect social issues.

Model weight might be considered a type of protected speech (the argument being that fashion and modeling is a type of art).

This notion of speech could even be extended to decisions that bolster a company's brand (e.g. A&F's new religious discrimination lawsuit). France, however, has more of a history of legislation of this type (back to its prohibition on the hijab).

It will be interesting to see whether or not the French pass the bill (to this date, the National Assembly has voted for the bill to go to the Senate for approval) and whether or not the Danish companies will follow the agreed-upon Charter.

But, in any case, these initiatives show that people, governments and companies themselves are coming to realize the important position and power they have in setting social norms.

Although it seems incredibly trite, it’s quite apropos: With great power, comes great responsibility.

Suneal Bedi is a PhD student in Business Ethics at the Wharton School of Business and received his J.D. from Harvard Law School.