By J. DeVoy
While not all speech protected by the First Amendment is palatable, it is valuable. Almost two years ago, France tried to stifle the spread of information about anorexia and bulimia. The bill proposed to the country’s legislature provided steep penalties for promoting these diet and lifestyle choices.
[The bill] would take aim at any means of mass communication – magazines, blogs, Web sites – that promote eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia with punishments of up to three years in prison and €45,000, or $71,000 fines. (Source.)
Depending on the bill’s language, these terms could be dangerously vague. Only a few blogs are well-read enough to rival traditional media and truly be mass communication as most people would understand it. Moreover, the definition of how one “promotes” anorexia or bulimia is problematic. Of the sites I’ve seen, most of the promotion is done in terms of life experiences, as women (and some men) talk about their increased confidence and desirability as a consequence of being thinner. One of the main avenues of promotion is photography, often through websites dedicated to pictures of thin people; these images, sometimes lumped together as montages on YouTube, are known as Thinspiration.
There’s no question that anorexia and bulimia carry health risks. So do tobacco and alcohol, though, both of which are legal and heavily advertised. Being thin is an element in the bundle of physically attractive traits both men and women can possess. A Dateline NBC story found that attractive people really are treated better; Above The Law‘s David Lat argued that, on average, attractive people have better legal careers — and readers agreed, at least according to the post’s unscientific poll. Before blaming cultural bias, which undoubtedly plays some role, consider a recent study from the Netherlands that found even blind men found thin women the most attractive — especially those with a waist/hip ratio around .7. This suggests a biological imperative in determining attractiveness based on thinness.
Despite health risks, which are inherent in all kinds of legal activities such as driving and smoking, there is some evidence that the outcomes from bulimia and anorexia can be positive. In fact, the immediate risks of eating disorders are less significant to others than driving, especially while intoxicated, or releasing second-hand smoke for others to breathe. France and various other Debbie Downers, however, want to ban support for this lifestyle.
As always, sunlight is the best antiseptic. If there are profound health consequences from eating disorders, the internet is an adequate forum for activists to identify them. Like so many things, anorexia or bulimia may be choices that cannot truly be regulated by the state. Where there is a voice criticizing eating disorders, another necessarily exists to promote them as a fulfillment of intense mental and emotional needs. If nobody was seeking out eating disorders, there wouldn’t be a desire to ban their promotion.
There are many reasons thinspiration is protected speech and the regulations proposed in France are inconceivable in America. Above all others, it’s because the Constitution and American people assume individuals can make responsible decisions for themselves about their image and health. And, even if that’s not true, First Amendment protections provide the forum for debate on both sides of this and any other controversy.