A ban on the use of underweight models in local advertisements and publications has been imposed by Israel via a law passed in March. The new law, which will be applied at every photo shoot in Israel that will produce images to be used on the Israeli market, requires each fashion model to produce a recent medical report to prove that they are not malnourished. The report, which uses World Health Organization standards to determine malnourishment (as explained below), must not be more than ninety (90) days old at the time of the photo shoot. The law is believed to be the first of its kind in the world.
Additionally, the law requires companies to disclose if image-editing methods such as digital tools were used to make models appear thinner than they actually are. As defined by an unofficial translation of Law for Restricting Weight in the Modeling Industry, 5772-2012, Israeli Knesset, March 19, 2012, a clarification must be provided and shown in a conspicuous place and in an obvious color and size of the advertisement, if editing was used. This law will not, however, apply to foreign publications sold in Israel, prompting concern that the law will not have a measurable impact at all – Israeli teens often take their cues from international media in addition to local publications.
The World Health Organization utilizes the body mass index system, where a BMI below 18.5 indicates malnutrition in the UN agency’s scheme. According to this standard, a woman who is 5 foot 8 inches tall should not weigh less than 119 pounds. The World Health Organization explains BMI as a simple index of weight-for-height, commonly used to classify underweight, overweight, and obesity in adults.
This law appears to be the first governmental attempt to fight the spread of eating disorders in the fashion industry through passed legislation. A similar bill was proposed in Israel’s Knesset (Parliament) in the past, but was eventually rejected amidst complaints that it was wrong to discriminate based on overweight or underweight figures. While not having actual legislation, other countries do have guidelines to enforce this type of regulatory scheme. One example is Spain: In 1996, Madrid’s regional government banned women from participating in Fashion Week if they had a BMI under 18. During that first year of enforcement, thirty percent of previous models were not allowed to participate (reported by CNN). Britain provides another example. The British fashion industry is itself self-regulated, however the British Advertising Standards Authority blocked an advertisement by the clothing brand “Drop Dead” in 2011; the blocked ad featured a model whose ribs were showing in her bikini. The British Advertising Standards Authority called the ad “socially irresponsible,” according to U.K. site Campaign.
The Huffington Post reports that the sponsors of the new Israeli law say it could become an example for other countries grappling with the spread of dangerous eating disorders. Dr. Rachel Adatto, who is both a Medical Doctor and a Knesset Member, and who was one drafter of the bill, stated:
The fashion and advertising industries have constructed a distorted ideal of female beauty, as many of the models appearing in the adverts are underweight. This bill is meant to battle eating disorders [such as anorexia nervosa, a.k.a. anorexia]. It’s important to understand that anorexia can kill, a fact which brings out the importance of tools that could curb its expansion among youngsters.
According to a report in Telegraph, Adatto’s assistant, Liad Gil-Har elaborated by saying the lawmakers, “want to break the illusion that the model we see is real.” The bill’s introduction reveals, “Eating disorders, including anorexia, have been on the rise in Israeli society, especially among young girls.” Additionally, the bill also states: “Studies show that one of the causes for eating disorders among young women is the effect media and advertising campaigns have by presenting very slim women as role models, thus affecting the youth’s standards.” Telegraph further reported that in Israel, about 2% of girls between the ages of fourteen and eighteen have severe eating disorders.
The bill is clearly an effort to fight this alarming statistic among such a young group, however is a BMI minimum really the right way to fight eating disorders in the fashion industry? Critics of the legislation focus on the necessity of addressing health concerns, and not solely weight itself. Top Israeli model Adi Neumman has stated to Telegraph that although she eats well and exercises, she wouldn’t pass under the legislation since her BMI is 18.3. Neumman instead proposes forcing, “actual tests. Make girls go to a doctor. Get a system to follow girls who are found to be puking.” David Herzong, professor of psychiatry and expert on eating disorders, agrees with Neumman. According to Deseret News, Herzong says, “the health of the model… should be evaluated. Our weight can change hour to hour.”
In the United States, efforts to promote the health and welfare of fashion models are championed by a group called the Model Alliance. Its Founder and Director, Sara Ziff (herself a model) addressed the Israeli law at last Friday’s Fashion Law Institute’s Second Annual Symposium panel, “ADmonishments: Where Fashion Law and Advertising Meet.” Ziff stated:
At 5’9″ and 116 pounds, I would be banned from modeling in Israel. I’m pretty healthy, I never diet and I’ve never had to watch my weight. I’m sensitive to the effect my image has on everyone, however BMI is an overly simplistic measure of individual health. The Model Alliance is working to make sure models have access to affordable health care.
Ziff seems to address the main concern that many others have expressed – BMI measures are simply not going to solve this problem. A more inclusive, health-focused approach is key.
Although similar legislation in the United States may seem far-off, one bill introduced by Senator Kay Hagan of North Carolina last July, entitled the Healthy Media for Youth Act, does seem to recognize the influence of the media on girls’ perceptions of their own bodies. This bill would
authorize grants to promote media literacy and youth empowerment programs, to authorize research on the role and impact of depictions of girls and women in the media, to provide for the establishment of a National Task Force on Girls and Women in the Media, and for other purposes.
Congress’s findings included in the bill note that sixty percent of teenage girls compare their bodies to fashion models and almost ninety percent of girls say the media places a lot of pressure on teenage girls to be thin, according to the 2010 Girl Scout Research Institute report entitled “Beauty Redfined.” Further, only thirty-four percent of girls report being very satisfied with their bodies, according to another Girl Scout Research Institute survey. Notably, in no way does this bill specifically propose banning the use of underweight models in the fashion industry, however it would potentially authorize programs designed to (i) encourage youth to develop a critical understanding of how girls and women are depicted in the media, (ii) provide education about the sexualization of girls and women, and (iii) support public or private partnerships that would encourage media content providers to promote media content that encourages healthy body images. The Healthy Media for Youth Act was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Additionally, two other legislative efforts have been made to bring the public’s attention to photo retouching and editing in the United States. House Bill 2793, proposed by Representative Katie Hobbs, would require advertisers who alter or enhance a photo to put a disclaimer on the ad, alerting customers that: “Postproduction techniques were made to alter the appearance in this advertisement. When using this product, similar results may not be achieved.” According to azcentral.com, Hobbs even says it’s okay if the bill isn’t initially successful:
We just wanted to bring it to the table and start a discussion. We need to bring attention to these body-image issues, especially with young girls. Girls need to know that they don’t have to look perfect.
Seth Matlins, founder of That Was Then Enterprises, and co-founder of Off Our Chests, also recently spoke at the Fashion Law Institute’s Symposium. Matlins started campaigning in the summer of 2011 to pass the Media and Public Health Act, a bill requiring “truth in advertising” labels to be attached to advertising and editorials with significantly photoshopped models. Matlins says the Media and Public Health Act is not about judging, but rather clarifying advertisements. The petition description explains:
So let’s call a duck a duck and a modified picture a modified picture. All we’re asking is that if you do it – you tell us you did. If we save one life, if one girl or one woman feels better about herself, or if just one person is spared the horrors of dealing with an eating disorder because of a truth-in-advertising label, how’s that a bad thing?
Both the issue of keeping our fashion models safe and healthy, and bringing awareness to the public about digitally altered photographs, seem to be cropping up in today’s media and legislation. While no one is sure if any of these efforts are an end-all solution to the problems our society is facing, they certainly are very positive steps in the right direction.
Interested readers are advised to check future fashionlawcenter.com postings for periodic updates on the pending U.S. legislation.
For more information on the Model Alliance’s efforts to improve models’ access to affordable health care, check out their website, modelalliance.org.