Nearly 24 million Americans suffer from eating disorders, which range from anorexia and bulimia to binge eating. Only one in 10 people get treatment, which is even more worrisome considering that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, according to statistics from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD).
Women are far more vulnerable to eating disorders than men. The organization notes that girls, starting at the age of six, become aware of their body image and concerned with their weight.
The promotion of extreme thinness as a beauty ideal by the fashion and advertising industries poses a threat to the mental and physical development of young girls. Although the problem remains a topic of discussion in the U.S., at least one country is seeking to change the message about skinniness with a substantial new industry law.
French lawmakers are making it illegal for fashion brands and agencies to hire models with a BMI below 18, or to doctor images of models without revealing that the photos have been altered.
The new law makes the use of ultra-skinny, potentially unhealthy models a criminal infraction. Agents that do so could face prison terms and a fine of 75,000 euros, or around $81,200. Retouching an image to make a model look thinner could mean a fine one third of the fee spent on that particular advertising effort.
The reason, say French authorities, is to educate children about the dangers of being underweight. Other countries, including Italy, Spain and Israel, already have or are making the same move as France.
"The prospect of punishment will have a regulatory effect on the entire sector," said Dr. Olivier Véran, a Socialist MP and neurologist.
There are no such laws yet in the U.S., despite the frightening statistics on low body weight and eating disorders.
"Eating disorders are serious, potentially life-threatening conditions that affect a person's emotional and physical health. People struggling with an eating disorder need to seek professional help. The earlier a person with an eating disorder seeks treatment, the greater the likelihood of physical and emotional recovery," according to the ANAD website.