France bans websites promoting anorexia 'cult'

Internet sites and blogs which peddle the gospel of an "anorexic lifestyle" to teenage girls were outlawed by the French parliament yesterday. The law is the first attempt anywhere in the world to stamp out the "pro-ana" movement, a cult-like attempt to promote anorexia as a lifestyle which began in the United States eight years ago.

If, as expected, the legislation is also approved by the Senate, it will become a criminal offence in France "to encourage another person to seek excessive thinness... which could expose them to a risk of death or endanger their health". Offenders risk two years in prison or a €30,000 (£24,000) fine.

Although the law would also apply to magazines, it is mostly aimed at internet sites and blogs which have sprung up in France in the past two years. These sites, which also exist in the UK, worship extremely thin female celebrities, including Nicole Richie and Victoria Beckham.

The French Health Minister, Roselyne Bachelot, told parliament: "Giving young girls advice about how to lie to their doctors, telling them what kinds of food are easiest to vomit, encouraging them to torture themselves whenever they take any kind of food is not part of liberty of expression. The messages sent out here are messages of death."

A typical French blog, Be Perfect, Be Pro Ana, carries a long letter signed "your future best friend Ana". It encourages teenage girls to refuse food, to make themselves sick and to take laxatives in order to match the body shape of their "thinspirations" such as Richie and Beckham.

"I am the only person who can tell you the truth," the blog says. "Everyone else lies to you because they love you but I'm going to tell you a secret: in the depths of their heart, they are disappointed with what has happened to you. Their talented girl has become fat and lazy. But I am going to change all that!"

The law's author, the centre-right deputy Valérie Boyer, says that between 30,000 and 40,000 people in France have anorexia. Most are girls or young women aged between 12 and 13 or 18 and 19. Anorexia, she says, kills more people in France each year than any other mental disorder.

At the same time, Mme Boyer and the Health Minister have drawn up a "voluntary charter on bodily image and anorexia". French advertisers, model agencies and prêt-à-porter fashion houses have agreed to sign the charter and to "refuse to publish images, especially of young people, which could promote an ideal of extreme thinness."

But will the globally influential French fashion industry respect the charter and how will modelling and fashion professionals define "extreme thinness"?

About a dozen blogs pop up in a search for Pro Ana. Be Perfect, Be Pro Ana suggests that the ideal of ultra-slimness has become a subject of obsessional pride among some girls and that fashion magazines are their inspiration and bible.

"Stop talking with your stomach!" the blog orders. "You're nothing but a fat, bloody cow! If you eat, all discipline will be lost. Is that what you want? To return to the fat cow that you are? I will force you to read fashion magazines and look at those perfect bodies which mock you..."

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