Israel is taking an aggressive approach to battling anorexia and what it believes is the connection between high fashion and the devastating illness by banning the use of underweight models in ads.
Thanks to a new law that took effect at the beginning of the year, models who hope to appear in Israeli ads must produce a medical report showing they have maintained a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI) for at least three months before a shoot or a catwalk show. The law also bans the use of models who “appear underweight” which means advertisers are not allowed to make a model’s body look thinner through the use of digital alterations and airbrushing. Brands who digitally alter any photographs will have to clearly mark the resulting images to show that they have been manipulated.
According to reports, Israel has only about 300 working models, so the immediate impact of the law does not appear to be widespread. The real question is, will it catch on? In 2006, Italy and India banned underweight models from the catwalk after two anorexic models in Uruguay and Brazil died, but it’s not like the beauty ideal has shifted much, at all, since then.
And while it’s an easy target, the Israeli law unearths the ages old question of whether the fashion industry, and the likes of mass-retail sexuality courtesy of chains like Victoria’s Secret, are behind the persistent public health problem of eating disorders in young girls or are merely a reflection back of our society’s own skewed visions of beauty. Does anorexia persist because of an onslaught of advertising that equates emaciation with sexiness? Like tackling questions related to rape culture, it’s hard to answer that question with a simple “yes” and not dig in deeper to discuss issues of cultural power and control.
Unfortunately, the Israeli law does not do this, nor is it really the appropriate vehicle to do so. Our laws are, after all, limited vehicles in addressing social change. Without a corresponding change in attitudes, laws like this one will do little, if anything, to address why young girls, and increasingly young boys, turn to drastic measures like self-starvation for approval.
But they will help the women currently trying to make a living in Israel as models by simply not enabling eating disorders to become part-and-parcel of their career. While BMI alone is not an indicator of health, it is as good as any of a place to start. Supporters of the law point to Israel’s most recognizable model Bar Refaeli as inspiration for the standard. Refaeli is considered “curvy” by modern fashion-industry standards but still has no problem earning a living in the business.
So while Israel should be commended for taking the issue of anorexia as a public health concern seriously, we all need to continue the conversation of why this issue persists and how we change it culturally. On this point the anti-tobacco campaign may be helpful. For decades, images of people smoking were perpetuated in advertising as symbols of coolness or sophistication. But as the dramatic public health costs of tobacco became too great to ignore, increasing public pressure on advertisers and tobacco companies themselves (along with a host of lawsuits to help drive home the point) made this kind of imagery unacceptable. Israel’s law gets that issue moving, but now the rest is up to us to make sure the issue stays in motion.
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Photo from 9042004 via flickr.