Will Banning Underweight Models Prevent Eating Disorders?


By Chelsea Roff

In 2007, Israeli fashion model Hila Elmaliah died of anorexia at 34-years-old. She had dwindled away to just under 60 pounds when she passed.

Elmaliah's untimely death motivated her friend, Israeli photographer and modeling agent Adi Barkan, to campaign for legislation in Israel that would prevent underweight models from walking the catwalk. Just over a year ago, Barkan got his wish and Israel passed a law that imposes strict regulations on the country's modeling industry.

In January of this year, five years after Elmaliah's death, the new law finally went into effect. The law bans underweight models in Israel from catwalks and commercials, a measure that many believe will reduce eating disorders and promote a healthy body image in a country where the fashion industry runs supreme. The new legislation requires models to produce a medical report at every photo shoot for the Israeli market, demonstrating that a doctor has agreed they have a body mass index of no less than 18.5 within three months before they're hired for a modeling job.

But that's not all. The law also takes regulations one step further, aiming to close any loopholes advertisers might use to propagate images of stick-thin women in the country. Advertisers must include a clearly written notice disclosing if models photoshopped, although the law doesn't apply to foreign publications sold in Israel.

via The Huffington Post:

The law's supporters hope it will encourage the use of healthy models in local advertising and heighten awareness of digital tricks that transform already skinny women into seeming waifs.

"We want to break the illusion that the model we see is real," said Liad Gil-Har, assistant to law sponsor Dr. Rachel Adato, who compared the battle against eating disorders to the struggle against smoking.

The law won support from a surprising quarter: one of Israel's top model agents, Adi Barkan, who said in 30 years of work, he has seen young women become skinnier and sicker while struggling to fit the shrinking mold of what the industry considers attractive.

"They look like dead girls," Barkan said.

According to a study cited by the Associated Press, about 2 percent of girls aged 14 to 18 in Israel have eating disorders. The rate of eating disorders is similar, if not more prevalent, in Western countries like America -- where no such bans yet exist. The National Eating Disorder Association estimates that 10 million Americans struggle with eating disorders. And we're not just talking about excessive dieting and unhealthy body ideals. Eating disorders are serious psychiatric illnesses with fatal consequences -- 5-10% of anorexics die within 10 years of contracting the disease, and 18-20% are dead after 20 years.

While I'm skeptical of the underlying premise of the law -- namely that banning underweight models will prevent eating disorders -- I applaud Israeli lawmakers for taking a stand against an industry that not only condones eating disorders, but encourages them. Many models report that their agents and employers tell them they must lose inordinate amounts of weight to get the jobs they want, encouraging them to fast, purge, and do whatever it takes to shed "extra" pounds. Take for example, world-renowned fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone, who defends extremely thin models, saying that "Clothes look better on thin people. The fabric hangs better."

All that said, I think it's important to note that eating disorders are not caused by unhealthy body ideals in the fashion industry. It's tempting to think that if we just put more curvier women on the covers of our magazines, our girls will no longer hate their bodies, starve themselves to be thinner, or make themselves throw up because they feel unworthy of nourishment. As much as I wish it were that straightforward, it's simply not the case. Eating disorders are complex, biologically-based illnesses with multifaceted causes -- including genetic predisposition, early childhood trauma, and sociocultural dynamics that present weight loss as a convenient outlet for coping with stress. One analogy experts often use to describe what causes is an eating disorder is the metaphor of a gun. Genes and personality traits may load the gun, but emotional distress and environmental factors pulls the trigger.

So will Israel's ban on super-thin models help to end the epidemic of eating disorders worldwide? Probably not. The images we see construed in the media certainly shape societal body ideals, especially among young people, but changes in fashion industry standards will not be enough to eliminate a disease so many women around the world lose their lives to. The law will offer protection for vulnerable individuals by curbing the environmental influences that trigger eating disorders, but legislation won't prevent a person from developing the disease altogether. Ultimately, Israel's law is a laudable attempt to combat an issue with causes that unfortunately go far beyond the media and the fashion industry.

While I think the legislation will likely make the fashion industry a much healthier space for women in the modeling industry in Israel, I can't help but wonder what happens to those women who are turned away from jobs. Are they given recommendations for therapists and medical professionals? Provided with access to free or low-cost care? The real challenge I think lawmakers in both Israel and the US need to address, if they're going to enact this type of legislation, is how to make treatment accessible and affordable for the millions of people suffering with this disease. In the US, most insurance companies refuse or limit the medical care required to treat eating disorders. Only 1 in 10 people with eating disorders receive treatment, and many of those individuals get kicked out of treatment long before they're well enough to go home.

I think Israel sets a precedent that can (and should) be followed by similar legislation in America, but I hope we can take it one step further and instill the institutional support necessary to help the men and women already struggling with this disease.

Fortunately, there is already legislation on the floor at both the state and national level that can make a significant impact in preventing and eliminating eating disorders. If you're in California, please send an email asking your lawmakers to support the California Insurance Bill, which ensures that the cost of treatment for mental illnesses, including eating disorders, be covered by health insurance. At a national level, you can encourage your members of Congress to support or co-sponsor the Federal Response to Eliminate Eating Disorders (FREED Act), which aims too increase research, education and prevention of eating disorders and ensure that people with the disease receive adequate care.

Take Action Now to Pass Important California Insurance Bill

Take Action Now to Pass the FREED Act

What do you think? Do you support Israel's ban on skinny models? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo ©: terryneuman.blogspot.com



Join Chelsea for her upcoming retreat - Yoga, Food, & Body Image: Fall in Love With Your Body Through Yoga - at the Omega Institute June 21-23, 2013. This program covers how to use the practice of yoga to support developing a healthier relationship to food, body image, and of course, yourself. The program covers how life experiences like dieting, eating disorders, pregnancy, and menopause impact us both physically and emotionally, and how yoga can be a tool for learning to navigate those life transitions with grace. A limited number of scholarships are available - contact Chelsea to inquire.

A version of this article was originally published in 2012