An Open Letter to the President of France

Catwalk  on fashion show
Catwalk on fashion show

Dear President Francois Hollande,

I want to start by thanking you for caring enough about women's well-being to make changes in France's policies. Banishing pro-anorexia websites and not allowing dangerously thin models to walk your nation's runways could help minimize the epidemic of body-hate and responsive self-harm that runs so rampant. I'm also grateful for the conversations your campaign to stop anorexia has spurred, and feel compelled to offer my own thoughts.

I realize I'm one voice amid countless, and it's likely this won't even reach you. For this reason, I'm sharing this letter publicly, with hopes its message might make a positive difference -- if not for a country or industry, then for someone.

These issues are dear to my heart. I modeled for years, and nearly died of anorexia while working in Paris. I've since fully recovered, and spent over eight years as a nutritionist, offering dietary therapy for people struggling with eating disorders and related issues. Now, as an experienced health writer, radio host and public speaker, I routinely interview experts in psychology and medicine, as well as women who've overcome severe self and body shame. As someone who can speak from multiple sides of the body-shaming epidemic, I thought my insight might prove helpful.

On BMI as the Determining Factor

Others have expressed concerns about your new law, prohibiting anyone from hiring a model with a below healthy BMI. I share those concerns. (For those who aren't familiar, Body Mass Index is a tool used to determine body fat content based on weight and height.) BMI is sadly inaccurate as a measure of health for many people, and I imagine many models will find ways to falsify their results.

Secondly, I've known models who were tall and lanky naturally, to the point of being bullied in their youth. Modeling gave them a sense of empowerment; finally, they weren't being ridiculed for their atypical thinness, but celebrated. These women would undoubtedly fail the "healthy" BMI test. Ostracizing naturally thin women isn't right.

Many women with eating disorders, including models, partake in dangerous tactics to maintain a slimmer physique -- yet aren't underweight by BMI standards.

In some ways, focusing on "the numbers" perpetuates the damaging notion that they matter most.

It's understandable why you and your associates have taken this route, given the fact that anorexia diagnostics are based on such numbers. (They shouldn't be, in my opinion.) But I side with others who've suggested alternate means of determining models' wellness, such as thorough health exams. While helpful, however, I don't think such measures would suffice.

More Effective Steps Toward Positive Change

Attempting to regulate the health of models, but still allowing the standards of thinness over all to carry on, won't solve this epidemic. The standards need to change. While this is a huge task, it's doable, in my opinion. Here are some powerful steps that would help:

  • Require fashion shows and magazines to depict a broad range of body shapes and sizes, as well as ages.

  • Encourage fashion designers to create clothing for those shapes, sizes and ages.
  • Don't merely show women seducing cameras in editorial shoots. Show them working, creating art, raising kids, being human.
  • Require medics and other health/safety measures at fashion shows and photo shoots. (Show models that their safety and wellness matters as much as that of Hollywood actors'.)
  • Discourage modeling agents from making harsh comments about models' weight.
  • Placing the pressure on those who hire models actually puts more pressure on the models themselves. If someone had landed in jail for hiring me when I was anorexic, I'm not sure I would have forgiven myself -- and most women with anorexia are already crippled with shame.

    One of the most important ways we can all contribute to a world that empowers, rather than shuns, women is by embracing ourselves.

    I've personally boycotted fashion shows, publications and work I find de-powering. (The narrow definitions of "beauty" were a major reason I quit modeling, even though I had an ongoing career after healing.) I've stopped saying anything negative about my body, which has cultivated more positive thoughts. I've embraced my sexuality -- a lack of which is another issue underlying many women's body hate. And I've learned to pursue my passions, to stop living up to anyone else's standards, knowing that in doing so, I can live a happier and more meaningful, impactful life.

    Here's hoping that no matter what efforts you and your administration prioritize moving forward, more women will start questioning whether those "extra" pounds are worth the time, tumult and energy making ourselves smaller requires -- and that living largely means recognizing the existing real-beauty inherent in ourselves.


    August McLaughlin

    This post originally appeared on August McLaughlin's blog.