The groundbreaking bill, adopted Tuesday by Parliament's lower house, recommends fines of up to $71,000 and three-year prison sentences for offenders who encourage "extreme thinness." It goes to the Senate in the coming weeks.
Critics said the bill is too vague about whom it is targeting and doesn't even clearly define "extreme thinness."
If passed, the law would be the strongest of its kind anywhere, fashion industry experts said. It is the latest measure proposed after the 2006 anorexia-linked death of Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston prompted efforts throughout the fashion industry to address the health repercussions of ultra-thin models.
Doctors and psychologists treating patients with anorexia nervosa — a disorder characterized by an extreme fear of becoming overweight — welcomed the French effort, but said anorexia's link with media images remains hazy.
For the bill's backers, the message behind the measure is important enough.
The bill's author, conservative French lawmaker Valery Boyer, said she wanted to encourage discussion about women's health and body image. Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot said Web sites that encourage young girls to starve should not be protected by freedom of expression.
So-called "pro-ana" — for pro-anorexia — sites and blogs have flourished in the United States and beyond, often hosted by adolescents sharing stories of how they deprive their bodies of nourishment.
French lawmakers and fashion industry members signed a nonbinding charter last week on promoting healthier body images. In 2007, Spain banned from catwalks models whose body mass-to-height ratio is below 18.
Bill author Boyer said such measures did not go far enough.
Her bill has focused attention on pro-anorexia Web sites that give advice on how to eat an apple a day — and nothing else.
The sites claim to provide emotional support for people who want to become anorexic. Photos of waif-like celebrities are given as "Thinspirations" on one blog, along with a list of advice on "how to skip meals." The site's host writes that she is not yet 15.
Boyer said in a telephone interview that her proposed legislation would enable a judge to sanction those responsible for a magazine photo of a model whose "thinness altered her health."
"That is the objective of this text," she said, without specifying who in particular might be prosecuted.
"The socio-cultural and media environment seems to favor the emergence of troubled nutritional behavior, and that is why I think it necessary to act," she said. Boyer insisted she wasn't out to punish models or anorexics themselves.
The bill would make it illegal to "provoke a person to seek excessive weight loss by encouraging prolonged nutritional deprivation that would have the effect of exposing them to risk of death or directly compromise health."
It calls for prison terms of up to two years and fines of up to $47,000 for offenders, with punishment increasing to three years in prison and a $71,000 fine in cases where a victim dies of an eating disorder.
Socialist lawmaker Catherine Coutelle said the bill was introduced to lawmakers too quickly — less than two weeks ago, on April 3 — to allow for thorough discussion before Tuesday's vote.
Legislator Jean-Marie Le Guen argued against legislating "social norms" and said there was no proof that anorexia comes from imitation. "What is extreme thinness?" he asked.
While the health dangers of anorexia are obvious, opponents said it should be up to parents and doctors — not the government — to deal with the reasons for eating disorders.
Didier Grumbach, president of the French Federation of Couture, rejected legislating body weight.
"Never will we accept in our profession that a judge decides if a young girl is skinny or not skinny," he said. "That doesn't exist in the world, and it will certainly not exist in France."
Modeling agencies had mixed reactions.
Patrick Lemire of Marilyn modeling agency in Paris, said he believed the bill only affected pro-anorexia Web sites, and brushed off concerns about its affect on the fashion industry.
"We don't have anything to do with health problems of the anorexic kind. The models (at our agency) are thin, but not anorexic," he said.
Juliette Menager, casting director for Joule Studio in Paris, said clearer guidelines on model weight could be a good thing.
"There is definitely an enormous problem," she said, describing some demands from magazine stylists as "completely sick." She said some models she represents lose even more weight for fashion shows.
"They are so thin during the shows, much more than the rest of the year. Sometimes it's really scary, like a concentration camp."
The Council of Fashion Designers of America adopted guidelines last year saying it wants its models to be healthy and not anorexic or bulimic. The guidelines are not binding and do not mention a specific mass-to-height ratio.
"While the guidelines are not mandatory and no law exists, each season we continue to hear stories of designers, stylists and agents refusing to work with models who appear unhealthy and supporting them by connecting them to resources and help," Steven Kolb, the group's executive director, said in an e-mailed statement.
The French health minister also suggested imposing limits on the body mass index of models at French fashion shows, and said France could push for a Europe-wide anti-anorexia measure when it takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union in July.
Most of the 30,000 to 40,000 people with anorexia in France are women, the Health Ministry says, as are most of the millions of people around the world who suffer from eating disorders.
Marleen S. Williams, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University in Utah who researches the media's effect on anorexic women, said it was nearly impossible to prove the media causes eating disorders.
Williams said studies show fewer eating disorders in "cultures that value full-bodied women." Yet with the new French legal initiative, she fears, "you're putting your finger in one hole in the dike, but there are other holes, and it's much more complex than that."
Associated Press writers Emmanuel Georges-Picot and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.