The Fight to End Eating Disorders Among Young Girls: Malnourished Models Banned From Working in Israel

A few days ago, an article on Israel caught my attention. Unlike most news pieces originating from this region, however, this one did not report on Netanyahu’s latest political move or the strike of rockets from Gaza. It rather covered an effort against a different kind of war — the war against the spread of eating disorders. Indeed, a new Israeli law passed on March 19 bans the use of underweight models in advertising and on the catwalk. Publications will also have to specify if the image of a model was manipulated to make her (or him) appear thinner.

The law is one of the only attempts by a government to enforce a weight-influenced regulation of the fashion industry (Norway, France, and Great Britain have similar measures, while the American fashion industry is self-policed), which is widely seen as responsible for promoting eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia by idealizing extreme thinness. I’m aware that this “accusation” is disputed by some, and I certainly can’t read the minds of tens of thousands of young women (and men) to understand what leads them to adopt  certain eating habits, but after reading different data, such as that obtained by a U.S. study that asserts that 47% of girls in the 5th-12th grade reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures, or that 69% of girls (in the same age range) claimed that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape, I can’t help but to think that there must be some truth to this allegation.

A recent study on anorexia conducted in Europe by a London School of Economics economist and a professor at City University further showed that it is becoming increasingly apparent that “standards of physical appearance are important and powerful motivators of human behavior, especially regarding health and food.” Based on their findings, the researchers concluded that banning skinny models from the catwalk and the pictures of underweight models from magazines may in fact prevent the epidemic of the disorder.

Given these (amongst others) facts, I fully support a regulation that will hopefully promote a healthier body image and consequently contribute to some degree (as I realize that ads portraying thin models are by no means solely responsible for anorexia and bulimia) to halting the spread of eating disorders, particularly amongst young women.

According to the law passed by Israel’s Knesset, models who are considered “malnourished” by World Heath Organization standards will not be allowed to work in Israel’s fashion market. The WHO uses body mass index — a calculation based on a ratio of weight to height — to determine malnutrition, and anyone with a BMI below 18.5 falls within that category. In order to work as a model in Israel, women will now have to present a medical report no more than three months old stating that their BMI is above the WHO standard of malnutrition.

Dr. Rachel Adato, one of the lawmakers who introduced the bill, said she hoped the law would protect young people from pursuing unattainable ideals of beauty. “Beautiful is not underweight, beautiful should not be anorexic.” Adato found a staunch — and maybe unexpected — supporter in Adi Barkan, one of Israel’s top model agents, and a long-time key player in the industry. Barkan said that in his many years of work, he had seen young women become skinnier and sicker while struggling to fit the mold of what the industry considered attractive. “I look (back) 15 to 20 years ago, we shot models (sized) thirty-eight. Today, it’s twenty four. This is the difference between thin and too thin. This is the difference between death and life,” Barkan stressed.

Critics of the new legislation say that it should have focused on health, rather than on weight, stating that some models are naturally very thin. David Herzog, a leading U.S. expert on eating disorders noted that “The health of a model… should be evaluated. Our weight can change hour to hour.” Israel’s top model Adi Neuman, suggested that girls be made to go to the doctor: “Get a system to follow girls who are found to be puking.” 

Under the new rules, she will not qualify to model in her home country, given that her BMI is 18.3, even though she claims that she eats well and exercises. Neuman’s opinion stands in stark contrast to that of another young Israeli model, Danielle Segal, who was told she was too fat to model (even though she was by no means overweight, at 5’7" she weighted 116 pounds), as a result of which she lost 29 pounds and was hospitalized twice for malnutrition. Segal has said that she’s thrilled with the new law and wishes it had been passed years ago. “I wouldn’t have grown up thinking that this (being underweight) is a model of beauty. I wouldn’t have reached the point I reached.”

I’m not a doctor, nor an expert on eating disorders, but while I agree that some girls are naturally thin and Israel’s new regulation might be a handicap for some models, given the small percentage of women who have a BMI that naturally falls under 18.5 (according to Dr. Adato, only 5% do), and the difficulty of implementing a control system such as the one Neuman suggests (to begin with, I believe that there are many girls with bulimia who hide it from others and as such following them would be very challenging — to say the least), I have to agree with Adato’s statement, “on the one hand, maybe we’ll hurt a few models. On the other hand, we’ll save a lot of children.”

I believe that Israel’s measure represents a good start. It may not be perfect, but it portrays a positive effort. If the regulation could be improved further down the road to include additional evaluation tools to assess a model’s health, as some experts suggest, so as to not exclude naturally thin girls or boys, that would be even better. But until that happens, I applaud Israel’s initiative and hope that other countries will follow suit. (That said, Israel’s endeavor may be one of the first by a government to regulate the fashion industry, but it is by no means the first of its kind. Already in September 2006, the Spanish Association of Fashion Designers banned models who have a BMI of less than 18 from participating in Madrid’s fashion week. Similarly, at the end of that year, Italy’s government and fashion industry pledged to abide by a voluntary code of conduct aimed at keeping unhealthy models from the catwalk.)