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Am I fat?

04/30/08 5:55PM By Cheryl Hanna
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(HOST) Commentator Cheryl Hanna, a professor at Vermont Law School, recently contemplated whether a French law banning the promotion of extreme thinness ought to be adopted here.

(HANNA) A few weeks ago, my four year old daughter pointed to a woman and asked me if she was fat.  I tried to explain, albeit not very well, why we shouldn't judge people like that.  Then she asked, "Mommy, am I fat?"

My heart sank.

I knew this day would come.

I just didn't think it would be here so soon.

Particularly with childhood obesity on the rise, it's important for parents to instill healthy eating habits and a positive self-image.  Yet, despite a parent's best efforts, children are often confused about what a healthy body looks like, so you can't blame a kid for asking.

But for some girls, and increasingly boys, the message that "thin is in" can translate into a potentially fatal eating disorder.

So when I heard that the French government was considering a law that would make it illegal to publicly promote extreme thinness, I was all ears.

The law was introduced after a Brazilian model died of anorexia. It targets advertisers, fashion magazines, and websites that promote anorexia and other eating disorders.

Of course, we've all seen those fashion ads. But I had never heard of these websites before, so I checked them out.

I was shocked!  

These sites promote anorexia as a "life-style choice."  They provide advice on how to hide your starvation from friends and family, and offer words of encouragement to those trying to continually diminish who they are.  

Advocacy groups have been mildly successful in having sponsored sites like Yahoo! remove them, but that's a small dent in the larger problem.

So, should the United States go the way of the French in banning the promotion of extreme thinness?

The major hurdle in doing so is the First Amendment.  The French don't have nearly the same free speech protections as do Americans.  

But that doesn't mean free speech in America is absolute. We do allow the government to ban speech that's particularly harmful - things like child pornography or yelling fire in a crowded theater.  The question is whether promoting extreme thinness is so harmful as to warrant government censorship.

I think this is really a tough call.  Even it if could be shown that these images contribute to eating disorders - a highly controversial claim - some might argue that there are other social values to be considered - artistic expression for instance, or political speech, or even satire.

Despite good intentions, such a law could be used to censor speech the government just doesn't like.  And although we don't condone images promoting bad eating habits or smoking or violence, because they, too, can negatively harm people, unless they specifically target children, we generally prefer to let the marketplace of ideas determine what's good for us - not state officials.

And thus, it's unlikely that American courts would ever uphold a law like the one in France.

So what's a mom to do?  I always remind my students that the cure for speech we don't like is more speech. So I guess my children and I will just keep talking.
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