It appears that French authorities are planning to crack down on pro-anorexia websites. From the Beeb:
If approved by France’s upper house, those found to have encouraged severe weight loss could be fined up to 45,000 euros and face three years in prison.French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot said the proposed law would help stop advice on how to become ultra-thin being spread through pro-anorexia sites on the internet.
“Encouraging young girls to lie to their doctors, advising them on foods that are easier to regurgitate and inciting them to beat themselves up each time they eat is not freedom of expression,” Ms Bachelot told the assembly.
This is admirable and I can’t argue, but I wonder how far they’re going to take it. The BBC says the law will affect “websites, fashion houses, magazines and advertisers” — French ones only, one must assume — but the clear implication is that they will target only websites promoting anorexia to young girls. These are harmful, of course, and I must agree with Ms. Bachelot that, while free speech on the internet is a wonderful thing, exhorting people to hurt themselves comes dangerously close to shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. But pro-ana sites aren’t the most pervasive medium promoting self-starvation.
Would this law affect, for instance, the Kimkins diet, a super-low-calorie diet invented by a woman with no medical training (and whose diet success was apparently fabricated)? The victims of this scam weren’t impressionable young girls — they were primarily grown women whose desperation to Get Control and Start a New Lifestyle (For Their Health, naturally) overpowered their capacity for critical thought. Would this law protect them from doing something they clearly wanted very badly to do — or at least prevent diet websites from providing them the materials to do it with? What about LighterLife, a 530-calorie-a-day liquid fast whose users complain of hair loss and amenorrhea (but are still reported as “successes” by the BBC)? What about the profoundly irresponsible pseudo-dietician Monica Grenfell and her crash diet plans? Nobody who promotes these diets is saying, in so many words, “you should cultivate anorexia.” They’re not preying on children. They’re simply offering a much sought-after product to people whose judgment is clouded by misinformation and frustration. When do we go after them?
Of course, the more obvious scams like Kimkins and LighterLife have already come under fire for false advertising — which is sort of a laugh, since what they’re advertising boils down to the difficult-to-dispute idea that ever-intensifying starvation will eventually make you lose weight. But the difference between these extreme diets and more standard dieting is just a matter of scale. Reading the stories of Kimkins victims, one might at first blush be flummoxed by their apparent gullibility — how could anyone think that water fasts and 500-calorie-or-less days constituted legitimate diet advice? But even leaving aside our natural susceptibility to authority (or, in this case, someone presenting herself as an authority), Kimkins doesn’t look that different from the other diet plans on the market. Why would someone be skeptical? Because the plan promotes starvation? As Kate pointed out recently, the World Food Programme, the UN’s hunger-fighting organization, says that anyone surviving on less than 2350 calories a day is below the food security line. (On the WFP website, I noticed, they often cite 2300 calories as the minimum. Then I got caught up playing Free Rice and finally made it to level 50!) Even gentle, caring, we’re-not-a-diet diets like Weight Watchers bring people in well under this cutoff. “Calories in<calories out” may be a gross oversimplification — especially since it usually goes hand-in-hand with other fallacies like “3500 calories equals a pound for every person anywhere” — but seriously underfueling your body for a significant time is going to make you lose weight for a while. Starvation works, so any diet plan that is temporarily effective on average is promoting some form of it.
My point is, it’s all very well and good to go after the pro-ana sites. But telling teenagers on Livejournal how to be more anorexic isn’t the only way to promote body-hatred, fear of food, fear of fat, or obsession with deliberate self-starvation. Why would you need to be so direct, when there are prejudiced doctors, teasing parents, a misinformed and often hateful media, and a whole internet full of raging douchebags with nothing better to do than spew casual brutality? The culture at large will instill the desperation and the terror — and not only in young girls, but in adults and parents and men. Diet companies, not a single one of which allows a level of nutrition that the WFP would recognize as adequate, just sit back and minister to those who approach them. The boundary between promoting anorexia and pushing a diet like Kimkins is vanishingly narrow, and the boundary between a diet that allows you to starve on 500 calories a day and one that allows you to starve a little slower on 1000 is almost as brittle. And they’re all just symptoms, just ways of trying to deal with the body-hatred, cruelty, and obsession that festers in our culture.
When people are so afraid of fat that they’re failing to nourish their children, how much good will it do to shut down a few thinspo forums? I applaud the French government for proposing to make this first move, but I wonder if it’s symbolic. Are they looking only to protect naive young nymphets? Or are they ready to acknowledge the undeserved adoration that our culture has for starvation, among people of all ages and sizes? Are they waging a nominal fight against anorexia’s Web presence, or are they actually interested in promoting adequate nutrition and mental health across the board?