What the U.S. Can—and Can't—Learn From Israel's Ban on Ultra-Thin Models

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A new Israeli law prohibits fashion media and advertising from using Photoshop or models who fall below the World Health Organization's standard for malnutrition.

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Aya Barazani, who suffers from anorexia, points at Israeli fashion models Noga Dekel, left, and Shira Amikam, as fashion photographer Adi Barkan looks on during a photo shoot in his studio for a campaign promoting anorexia awareness. / AP

On Monday, March 19, the Israeli parliament passed legislation ubiquitously known in the country as the Photoshop laws. The new regulations on the fashion and advertising industry ban underweight models as determined by Body Mass Index and regulate Photoshop usage in media and advertising.  Abroad, the laws have opened new discussion on a government's right to intervene in these two industries.

The legislation focuses on two elements of the fashion industry that have long drawn criticism for their effects on women and, especially, girls: ultra thin models and the use of Photoshop to make women appear impossibly thin in advertisements. The measure has been controversial within Israel for raising the question of where free speech bumps up against the fashion industry's responsibility -- and its possible harm -- to its customers' psychological wellbeing. It has also raised the question of whether other countries might consider similar measures to address what many activists consider a root cause of an epidemic of anorexia and other eating disorders.

Rachel Adato, an Israeli parliament member with a background in medicine, as well as prominent photographer and fashion model agent Adi Barkan, championed the law.

Barkan has been working to help girls with eating disorders since he discovered the epidemic firsthand in 1997, when a 15-year-old girl named Caty asked to meet with him to understand what a "model should look like." She arrived at the meeting five-foot seven-inches, weighing 79 pounds. "It was obvious she required hospitalization," Barkan told me over email. Caty was hospitalized for 5 months, during which time Barkan says he visited daily.

A few months after Caty was released, Barkan appeared as a guest on an Israeli lifestyle TV show to discuss his work. "During the interview the hostess told me she had a surprise for me," he recalled, "a girl who claims I saved her life, and then Caty came in and told her story."

" I'm sure we'll change the attitude all over the world."

"The following morning there were 174 messages on my answering machine from anorexics and bulimics asking for help. I met all of them."

An icon in the fashion world, Barkan tried to deal with the issue from the inside: appealing for change within his beloved industry, to an overwhelmingly negative response of doubts, jabs, and apathy.

"I became immersed in this world very quickly. I gave up the agency and photography and delved into the dark world of anorexics and bulimics," he said. "I realized that only legislation can change the situation. There was no time to educate so many people, and the change had be forced on the industry. There was no time to waste, so many girls were dieting to death."

Working with members of the Israeli parliament, he met Adato. The pair spent two and a half years working on the legislation: presenting scientific articles to the Israeli parliament and demonstrating the connection between media portrayals of peoples' bodies and eating disorders. The law forbids underweight models from working on advertisements. A doctor must certify that a model can be employed by measuring him or her and determining that the model's Body Mass Index (BMI) is at or above 18.5, which the World Health Organization defines as indicative of malnutrition. A five-foot, seven-inch individual, for example, must weigh at least 118 pounds to work as a model in Israel. On March 19, the bill was easily passed by the majority of the parliament.

Adato explained the legislation and its easy passage simply: eating disorders are an epidemic in this small country, and the government had the responsibility to take action to protect the vulnerable.

"In Israel, there are 1,500 new cases of eating disorders every year, and 10 percent of teenagers suffer from eating disorders," she told me. Israel's population is only 7.5 million, making the high rate especially alarming. "We also know that the first cause of death in the age group of 15-24 is anorexia, so when you hear those numbers, they're frightening."

There's a big difference between health and weight, as Adato was quick to note, and the BMI value, though imperfect, is the best way to define a an underweight individual across international standards. "It's easy for me to adopt the international value that was adopted by the WHO as a physician and as parliament number. I don't talk about health; I'm talking about underweight."

Unsurprisingly, there's been backlash from some modeling agencies in Israel. "Agencies say 'all of our models are eating perfect they're just skinny' but it's not true and we know it's not true," Adato insisted. "Only 5 percent of girls that are under 18.5 BMI are girls that are eating well in Israel."

The new law also stipulates that any ad which uses airbrushing, computer editing, or any other form of Photoshop editing to create a slimmer model must clearly state that fact. Advertising campaigns created outside of Israel must comply with the legislation's standards in order to appear here.

The first legislation of its kind, this law and its architects have gained an extraordinary amount of international media attention. Within six days of the bill's passage, Adato says she received 456 media inquires from all over the world. "According to interest, I'm sure this will make some change," she told me. "I'm sure we'll change the attitude all over the world, that this is a disease and people are dying from anorexia and people need to keep this in mind and in public view."

Daniel Le Grange, professor of psychiatry and director of the eating disorder program at the University of Chicago, believes that Israel's legislation on Photoshop could have an even greater impact than its BMI regulations. "No one is that perfect, no one has Photoshop on their faces all day long," he said, frustration clear in his voice. "It's very discouraging for our patients who for one reason or another desire that perfection, and they page through every magazine and see every face that's perfect. It's easy to get scooped up that, 'I should look perfect because they all look perfect.'"

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Talya Minsberg is a journalist and community moderator at The New York Times.

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