I first heard this story about a month ago on the morning news show in Marseille; I figured it was too early in the morning and I had heard it wrong. Nope: the French parliament really is considering making it a crime to endorse anorexia, aiming at banning super-thin models from the fashion world. The monde du mode is in an uproar. Would this be the first time that standards of beauty were codified by law? I can’t really think of any other examples.
Of course, these sorts of laws usually fail anyway, for the same reasons that all laws that criminalize words or images are inherently flawed, and yes that includes the misguided hate speech code we have in Canada. In the first place, such laws are almost impossible to enforce: even if it was possible to explain what it means to advocate anorexia in a way that everyone could agree on, a prosecutor would still have to prove intent. We would have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Vogue, for instance, set out to endorse eating disorders.
Secondly, by illegalizing certain images or words, we also create thought-crimes, which is simply cancerous in a democracy. An informed citizenry cannot be “protected” from ideas without infantilizing them. Moreover, by putting ideas out of bounds, we valorize them and, paradoxically, also put their counter-arguments out of bounds. And what does it say in a democracy when the citizens give their state power to protect them from dangerous ideas? What stops the state from deciding that all information and ideas should be similarly vetted?
Lastly, I’d be surprised if there was really a multitude crying out for this law. The French somehow don’t strike me as being so naïve and unsophisticated. It takes a certain kind of simplicity to believe that freedom of expression is a cause and pathology its effect. Without having studied the disorder, I’d imagine that anorexics most often come from stifling perfectionist middle class families and that their behaviors are triggered after serious traumas and loss of personal control. I’d imagine that sexual assault plays a role in a number of cases. Maybe I’m wrong about that. But there’s something remarkably insulting about the alternate idea that young girls are these tabulas rasas wandering around waiting to be brainwashed by the first thing they see on television. I can’t imagine the sort of identity crisis that would lead someone to feel so afraid that pictures in magazines could brainwash them that they would ask the state to protect them from these images, but it must be something like hysteria.
So it goes without saying that I think the proposed law is a mistake that won’t last long.