When will Pakistan have time to tackle anorexia?

When will Pakistan have time to tackle anorexia?
A model presents a creation during the Paris Fashion Week.

PAKISTAN - For ages, Paris has led as the fashion capital of the world, with Frenchwomen being considered the epitome of svelte chic. Though a few other cities and countries have since appropriated a slice of the pie, the fashion industry is still worth millions in France. Perhaps more importantly, it exports its ideas - the dream - to far corners of the globe.

What comprises the dream of beauty and, by extension, fashion? There are many components, but overwhelmingly, people will start with the adjective "thin". Pencil-thin - impossibly slim - models are indeed one of the hallmarks of the fashion industry everywhere.

But there must be limits, it seems.

Early this month, France's Parliament approved a series of legislative measures that make it a crime for fashion agencies to use models below a certain standard of thinness. Agencies will also be required to clearly mark out all photographs of models that have been altered or retouched to change the shape of their bodies, no matter how trivial.

The legislation intends to impose a minimum body mass index (BMI) for the models that agencies employ (although that minimum standard remains unspecified). According to World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, an adult with a BMI below 18.5 is considered underweight, under 18 as malnourished and under 17 as severely malnourished. A model who is 1.75m tall and weighs 50kg would have a BMI of 16.

One could imagine women everywhere perhaps heaving a sigh of relief at even this very slight respite to the constant challenge many feel to be thin, stay thin, and then be as thin again as possible, which is posed by a global glamour industry that dictates that waif-like must remain the aspiration. There is a huge gulf between the near-impossible slimness that supermodels enjoy, and the comfortable homeliness that is the lot of most people around the world, women and men alike.

But the lawmakers of France were hardly motivated by altruism. Their problem is, too many people in the country - currently about 40,000, 90 per cent of them young women - are becoming anorexic. And that carries a price tag in terms of burdens on the healthcare sector, the consequences of a workforce that is not as fit as it could be, and the societal and familial impacts. So, along with the standard that will be set for models, there is a provision criminalising the promotion of anorexia on the Internet too.

Modelling agencies are up in arms, of course, pointing out that it is not valid to conflate anorexia with the thinness of models, especially since the former is a psychogenic illness. But the fact that what the beauty/fashion industry signals has an appreciable ideological impact, cannot be denied either.

In 2008, members of the French Parliament voted to criminalise "inciting someone to excessive thinness", but the Bill ran out of time to be presented to the Senate. Back in 2006, the Spanish Association of Fashion Designers barred models with BMIs of less than 18 from taking part in fashion shows in Madrid. Italy requires health certificates for those who tread the catwalk.

What lessons, if any, does the French example offer to a dysfunctional country like Pakistan where, far from lawmakers worrying that poor eating habits are becoming the norm, the fact that citizens are dying of poverty, disease and violence hardly causes a stir? For one thing, the concerns addressed in France ought to remind us that the future has to be catered for - and the most basic component of a viable future is a healthy population.

As things stand at the moment, though, there is a very large number of serious and - unfortunately - basic issues that stand in the way of public health, now and in the future. On one side of the spectrum are diseases such as polio, measles or even diarrhoea, preventable but which nevertheless exact a heavy cost. Then there are infrastructural problems such as people's access to clean drinking water, sanitation facilities and the healthcare system.

Beyond those, there are what can be called impediments which are the result of a general lack of awareness: For example, a small survey conducted a few years ago in Karachi found that even in households that had the purchasing power for adequate food, children showed signs of malnutrition because of incorrect nutritional choices. In any case, hunger and malnutrition stalk swathes of the country's poor. And yet, Pakistan is an anachronistic country. For example, there is legislation on the serious public health issue of smoking.

Given all this, then, one can only dream of a time when Pakistani legislators have the leisure to worry about people's eating habits, or the risks posed by processed foods or those with high salt content. At the moment, it all appears to be a bit of a free for all.

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