Israeli lawmakers have banned super-skinny models from catwalks, ads, and billboards in an effort to fight the eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Sponsors hope the move will help promote positive body images among both young girls and boys. But will it help? And will other countries follow Israel’s lead?
The new law says that men and women cannot get modeling jobs unless their Body Mass Index (BMI) is 18.5 or higher. BMI is a ratio that expresses a person’s weight in kilograms divided by their height in meters, squared (BMI =weight (kg)/[height (m)]²). The World Health Organization says that a BMI lower than 18.5 indicates malnutrition. Hebrew University of Jerusalem anthropologist Sigal Gooldin says that in Israel, about 2 to 4 percent of all girls under age 18 have severe eating disorders.
New idea of beauty
Israeli lawmaker Rachel Adato sponsored the measure in the Knesset. She told Reuters that the aim is to change people’s perceptions.
“We believe that by this bill, there will be a new way to protect the kids and a new way to look at what is beautiful,” she said. “Beautiful shouldn’t be anorexia. Anorexia is a very, very dangerous disease and that’s the reason, that’s the justification why we need this legislation,” Adato added.
The legislation also requires any ads published in Israel to disclose if the models have been digitally altered – using editing software like Adobe Photoshop – to make them look thinner. The law does not apply to foreign publications sold in Israel.
Israeli photographer and modeling agent Adi Barkan collaborated with Adato on the law. He said the impossible ideal pursued by fashion designers, models, and agencies was getting dangerous. Barkan started a campaign two years ago to fight the use of underweight models in fashion images.
“I look 15-20 years ago, we shot models at size of 38 (metric) today it’s 24, that means that we lost two sizes in 20 years,” he said. “Why? Why? And this is the difference between thin an too thin. This is the difference between death and life. So we must pass the law and then we can save a lot of girls every year,” the photographer added before the bill’s approval.
I think we’re going to make history. I hope that the other countries in Europe and the United States (are) going to do it together after us because they know it’s real, really life saving. – Adi Barkan, Israeli photographer and modeling agent
A voice in the wilderness?
Will Israel’s new law work? In a world where supermodels are splashed across all media – from web pages, to television, print, magazines, billboards and bus stops – can a law prevent the psychological equation that skinny equals beautiful, even if skinny is not necessarily a healthy weight?
In August of 2006, Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos collapsed shortly after coming off the catwalk during Fashion Week in Montevideo. The 1.74 meter tall, 22-year-old weighed just 44 kilograms – for a BMI of 14.5 – when she died. In November of that same year, Brazilian Ana Carolina Reston died at age 21 from complications of anorexia. At the time of her death, the 1.73 meters tall model weighed just 40 kilograms – or a BMI of 13.4. The World Health Organization says anyone with a BMI lower than 16 is starving.
After Ramos’s death, the Madrid fashion show banned models with a BMI lower than 18. Milan bans models whose BMI is below 18.5. The Israeli law is believed to be the first to ban super-skinny models. The United States and Britain have “guidelines” for models, but the fashion industry is largely self-regulated.
Cover model and Victoria’s Secret “Angel” Adriana Lima of Brazil is 1,78 meters tall. Her measurements are 86-61-89 (34″-24″35″). According to WHO standards, to be healthy, a woman 1.72 meters tall should weigh no less than 54 kilograms. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for Lima to be at the bottom of the healthy range – and exempt from the Israeli law – she would have to weigh at least 58 kilograms.
Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover model Kate Upton was recently criticized for being “too chubby to be chic” according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. But Upton is 1.78 meters tall and weighs a reported 52.5 kilograms – giving the so-called “chubby” 19-year-old a BMI of 16.1!
The New York Times quoted Sophia Neophitou, one of the leading casting agents behind Victoria’s Secret fashion shows as saying the company would “never use Ms. Upton” for its runway show, even though she has modeled in the company’s catalog. The Times quoted Neophitou as saying Upton was “like a footballer’s wife, with with the too-blond hair and that kind of face that anyone with enough money can go out and buy.”
Neophitou’s opinion aside, Upton and other cover models inspire the same kind of drive to be skinny in the United States – and worldwide – as the models in Israel. According to the National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders (ANAD), only 5% of American women naturally possess the body type portrayed as ideal in advertisements. However, ANAD says 47% of girls in the fifth to 12th grades (ages 10- 18) said they wanted to lose weight because of magazine pictures. Sixty-nine percent of girls in the same age group reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape.
And it’s not just girls — ANAD estimates that 10-15% of those with anorexia or bulimia are male. And men are less likely to seek treatment for what’s perceived as a “women’s disease.”
The drive to be as thin as the super models is in sharp contrast to the rapid increase in obesity in the United States. The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that nearly 38% percent of all Americans are obese – with a BMI of 30 or higher. Yet the culture consistently portrays thin people – including super-thin models both male and female – as the ideal. First Lady Michelle Obama has championed efforts to fight childhood obesity and improve overall wellness with her “Let’s Move” program. The emphasis is similar to Israel’s efforts – to promote health through education, proper nutrition, and exercise.
Whether Israel’s law will help those seeking a healthy weight remains an open question. Knesset member Rachel Adato said she hopes Israel would be a model for other countries. “We are the first in the world that enacts this bill,” she said. “We do hope that the whole world, – the whole western world, which is fighting eating disorders – will adopt this way of thinking,” Adato added.
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Has the Israeli government gone too far with this policy or are they doing the right thing? Comment below.
David Byrd is a journalist, writer, video editor and photographer. He is also the host of VOA's American Cafe, a weekly show covering life and culture in the United States.