Fashion show model
A new French law could mean jail time for modeling agencies that pressure young women to lose excessive amounts of weight. Here, models get dolled up backstage before German designer Karl Lagerfeld's Autumn/Winter 2015/2016 women's ready-to-wear collection show for the fashion house Chanel at the Grand Palais in Paris. Retueres/Youssef Boudlal

French citizens who operate websites promoting anorexia or excessive weight loss could soon be punished by lengthy jail terms and massive fines under a new law. The measure is one component of a larger effort to criminalize the so-called thinspiration movement of advertisements, blog posts and tweets that idealize women who are alarmingly thin.

A number of so-called pro-ana and thinspirational websites recommend girls as young as 12 years old deprive themselves of calories to create stick legs and a thigh gap, which is created when a woman is so skinny that her knees touch when she’s standing upright. The website prohibition is an amendment to a larger French bill that would penalize modeling agencies encouraging their models to lose an unhealthy amount of weight. An individual’s body mass index (BMI), a metric based on height and weight, will be the determining factor in enforcing the law.

“The social impact of the image promoted by fashion, in which women must be skinny to a pathological degree to be beautiful and go on the catwalk is very strong,” said Dr. Olivier Veran, a neurologist and Socialist member of the French parliament, according to the Telegraph in the U.K. Veran previously told a Paris newspaper he was frustrated by an inability to stop sites that “promote malnutrition and commercially exploit people who are endangering their own health.”

About 40,000 French citizens suffer from anorexia, 90 percent of them women, according to health-ministry figures cited by the Guardian in the U.K. Modeling-agency executives found to be pressuring young women to have a BMI of less than 18 could face six months in jail and a 75,000 euro ($82,477) fine under the new law.

Simply browsing through images captured at recent fashion events shows models with caved-in cheeks and other signs of caloric deprivation. However, mental-health authorities have said that solving the problem of widespread eating disorders will take more than creating new laws.

“Parents, the public authorities, deputies in the National Assembly want to find a cause, something to blame,” Dr. Marcel Rufo, a psychiatrist at a French clinic that helps teenagers work through the issue, told the New York Times. “So, one designates fashion as to blame, but I believe that it is much more complicated than that.”