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France bans pro-anorexia websites and underweight models

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National Assembly cracks down on 'thinspiration' with public health amendments

Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

France's lower house of parliament this week passed a law that makes it a crime to encourage anorexia, with offenders facing up to one year in prison and a €10,000 ($10,800) fine. The law, passed Thursday evening, takes aim at "pro-anorexia" websites that promote "thinspiration" to young girls and women, saying they push people to "excessive thinness." An amendment passed Friday morning prohibits fashion agencies from hiring underweight and malnourished models.

The laws were passed by France's National Assembly as an amendment to a broader public health bill. The French health ministry says that between 30,000 and 40,000 people suffer from anorexia in France, 90 percent of whom are women.

Glorification or support group?

The fashion industry has been at the center of much of the debate. Last month, lawmakers proposed a bill that would ban excessively thin models and fine agencies that hire them. The measure was rejected on the grounds that it would violate anti-discrimination laws, but an amended version was passed Friday morning. Under the law, agencies or fashion houses that hire models with a body mass index (BMI) under 18 can face up to six months in prison and a €75,000 ($86,100) fine. Italy, Spain, and Israel have adopted similar regulations.

Supporters of the law passed Thursday say these "pro-ana" websites and forums endanger public health because they promote "prolonged dietary restrictions" and glorify unhealthy aesthetics such as "thigh gaps" and exposed rib cages. The measure is necessary, they argue, because authorities currently have no legal recourse to regulate the sites, but others say it may prove counterproductive.

A 2013 report from France's national scientific research center and other organizations warned that not all pro-ana or "pro-mia" (pro-bulimia) websites actually encourage eating disorders, saying some offer an important outlet for people to discuss their struggles. It also says censoring the sites would be "ineffective," noting that previous crackdowns from online services like Yahoo weren't able to prevent duplicates from popping up.

But Olivier Véran, a socialist MP and neurologist who sponsored the amendment, said yesterday that it wouldn't jeopardize online free speech, adding that it carefully differentiates sites that are "sometimes run by young women who use it as an outlet" from those that clearly support "methods to lose as much weight as possible."

The public health amendments will go on to the Senate for a vote. President François Hollande's party and the French health ministry have supported the anti-anorexia measurements.