The fashion industry loves a good ban. A critic who writes the wrong thing about a fashion show, an editor who doesn’t shoot enough of a particular designer’s clothing — labels commonly stifle their access until they get the praise and exposure they want from that person. Well, perhaps Israel got wind of how much the fashion industry likes to ban things. Because lawmakers there enacted legislation this week that bans too-thin models. That means models working in the Israeli market — which is hardly as influential as European or even South American market — must have a body mass index of 18.5 or higher, or at least “not look underweight.” (The World Health Organization defines underweight as having a BMI below 18.5.) So a 5’ 10” model must weigh 129 pounds, a 5’ 11” girl must weigh at least 133 pounds, and so forth. Many models of about that height walking runways and posing for magazines today easily weigh around 100 pounds so it at least sounds like a good idea. The Israeli law also requires fashion magazines to disclose when images have been manipulated to make the models look thinner.
Reactions have been mixed, mostly because BMI is such an imperfect way to measure overall health. A woman’s BMI might be under 18.5, but she might be totally healthy. Also, it’s unclear if trying to force magazines and designers to hire fleshier models will actually have an effect on national rates of eating disorders, causes of which remain largely a mystery. Columbia University psychiatrist B. Timothy Walsh told the L.A. Times:
“There are so many things that appear to contribute to vulnerability to eating disorders — certain genes, the environment in which you live, the stresses of life, especially during adolescence, and the interaction among all these things.”
But Israel’s law might not even be that effective in regulating the fashion industry anyway, since it also allows models bearing a doctor’s note saying they’re healthy to work. “It’s not crazy when jobs have physical requirements to have a doctor’s note to make sure they’re up to the job,” says Professor Susan Scafidi, head of Fordham’s Fashion Law Institute. But she wonders, “Will there be a doctor who just signs every note?”
Laws requiring media to disclose retouching done to photos — in the manner of health warnings on boxes of cigarettes — have come up in other countries, like France, but failed to pass. While health experts see Israel’s regulation of retouching as a positive thing for regular women (as though most of us don’t understand how rampant unrealistic photoshopping is), such measures fail to account for the models’ rights. “The model’s right to publicity — should it be the government saying you have to warn about Photoshop?” Scafidi wonders. “There are questions about how fair it is to the subjects. If my images go in my portfolio could it harm me in my employment? Where are the models’ voices in these questions?”
Sara Ziff, former model and founder of the Model Alliance, a young organization that fights for models’ rights to fair and good working conditions, echoes this sentiment. “Eventually I’d like to see models have some final say over whether or how much they’re retouched,” she writes in an email. Remember the Ralph Lauren model who was photoshopped to needle-like proportions to national outrage? She sued because the retouching job was so denigrating to her image.
Ziff believes that trying to legally regulate models’ weights is not the best way to promote health across the industry. “I think age limits could do a lot of the same work with more positive consequences for models as workers,” she adds. “Age and weight are inextricably linked, and while people pay a lot of attention to models’ body image, the long working hours, lack of adequate meal and rest breaks, age-inappropriate photos, and pressure to drop out of high school generally go unnoticed. If you really want to promote healthy images, you have to look at this issue from both a labor and public health standpoint.”
A new documentary, Girl Model, shows how issues of health and safety in the industry go far beyond extreme thinness. It follows the disturbing story of a 13-year-old Serbian girl scouted to try her luck as a model in Japan, where she routinely lies and says she’s 15. As Slate’s Virginia Sole-Smith puts it, “her agent behaves in creepily familiar ways with his young charges.” “The idea that some of this is a cover for sex trafficking is just appalling,” says Scafidi, who saw the film and suggested I should too, but “prepare to be disturbed.”
Not to mention, young models are routinely coerced into performing sexual favors for photographers to land jobs. So, why is there not more outrage over that, too?
While Israel’s law comes from a good place — of concern for the public health and for models who might have been urged to diet themselves to unhealthy proportions — it seems far from the best way to address the modeling industry’s biggest problems. And besides, if we want to see more realistic bodies succeeding in the fashion industry, the eye of the public has to change too. If that’s what we truly found beautiful — so much so that we felt inspired to spend money on more stuff the fashion industry sells that we probably don’t need — the industry would be more likely to deliver it. And other industries, like entertainment, that are perhaps even more influential in setting beauty ideals, would be likely to follow suit.