On Monday, Israel put into effect a law regulating the use of extremely thin models within the Israeli fashion industry. The law bans fashion houses and advertisers from using models with a BMI less than the World Health Organization standard of normal (18.5). Models must provide a medical report no less than 3 months old at every shoot or fashion show stating she is not malnourished. The law also forces advertisers to put a disclaimer on any image that has been edited or altered in way which makes a model appear thinner so that young girls and women will know the image is not realistic. This rule does not apply to foreign publications imported into the country. The legislation comes as a response to the relatively high incidence of eating disorders in the country, where approximately 2% of girls age 14-18 have anorexia or bulimia. This is similar to rates in other developed countries. While Israel isn’t exactly a mecca of high fashion, this ban has created a buzz all over the world, and we can only hope other markets will follow suit. It shows that someone is paying attention to the effect the fashion industry has on its consumers, and how the fashion industry responds will show how much accountability they feel to the people who perpetuate and escalate its growth, both the models who sell the clothing and the women who buy them.
This is not the first we’ve heard of a country or city putting restrictions on models used in shows. In 2006, in Madrid, the Spanish Association of Fashion Designers was the first body to put a ban on overly thin models. While not a law, there was a guideline put in place that models have a BMI of at least 18. At that time, Cathy Gould of New York’s Elite modeling agency accused the agency of using the fashion agency as a scapegoat for anorexia and bulimia. The ban in fact originated after backlash following the death of a 22 year-old anorexic Uruguayan model of heart failure after starving herself for a show, and shortly thereafter the death of a Brazilian model of complications of anorexia. Following fashion week in Madrid, Milan followed suit that same year. In Milan models were required to produce a medical certificate declaring them healthy with no eating disorder, and stating a BMI of at least 18.5. The models also needed to be at least 16 years of age. This was also not an outright ban, but a guideline requiring “self-regulation by the fashion houses”. Even Mario Boselli, the head of Italy’s National Fashion Chamber did not seem to take it very seriously, stating that only “maybe one girl in a hundred’ in the shows was too skinny. In fact, the average model is 5’11’’ and 117 pounds. This gives her a BMI of 16.3. She would have to weigh 133 pounds to achieve a “normal” BMI of 18.5. The average US woman is 5’4’’ and weighs 140 pounds and has a BMI of 24. Designers had mixed opinions about the ban. Many supported it, such as Emanuel Ungaro designer Giles Deacon who said ”At a certain period in time, the fashion industry was portraying this image of a totally unrealistic woman, women who are not allowed to be themselves. It's just all a bit wrong.” Many did not approve of the change. Outspoken Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld said that fashion is about “dreams and illusions, and no one wants to see round women.” Oh, Mr. Lagerfeld. There are no words.
There are many arguments that have been made against regulating the fashion industry. Some may say BMI is not a great indicator of health status or nutritional status as it is unreliable. It is true that BMI calculations can be unreliable in some cases, for example in children or the elderly, people who are very muscular, or women for example with very large breasts, or even amputees. I can’t think of a fashion model who meets any of these criteria. Some argue that there are women who are just naturally very thin and we shouldn’t punish them for this. I agree that there are those women who are naturally tall and skinny. We all have those girlfriends who for as long as we’ve known them have been twigs, eating twice as much as anyone you know and never being able to gain a pound. That girl everyone tells “You should be a model” even when she’s in her awkward ugly duckling stage because girls that tall and skinny are always models. But these girls are few and far between, and even these girls are very often not as bony as the girls we see on the runway. Should a girl like this be excluded because her BMI is 18.3 instead of 18.5? Maybe not. But there has to be a line drawn somewhere. And as for Mr. Lagerfeld’s statement that women like to look at “illusions” on the runway? I think that most women would rather see clothing on a real woman. When a woman looks at a size zero model wearing an outfit and she is a size 10, she has no “allusions” that outfit will look the same on her. (Hahaha)
Fast forward to now and we have actual government legislation in place in a country protecting models in an industry that up to now has promoted an unhealthy body image, as well as helping shield impressionable young girls and teenagers from images of unachievable ideals. There is some rumbling of similar legislation being discussed in France and in the US. An ad was recently banned in the UK for portraying a model with “highly visible ribs”. Australia has come up with a new code of conduct for the fashion industry. If key recommendations are met, such as not using female models that are excessively thin or male models that are excessively muscular, not using cosmetic surgery or rapid weight loss ads in magazines, putting disclosures on altered photos, not using models under 16 and stores stocking a wide variety of sizes then the fashion labels, modeling agencies, and magazines which comply will be awarded with the youth minister’s stamp of approval. We are not anywhere close to being there yet, but people are recognizing there is a problem and talking about it, and that is a good step in the right direction.
excerpt from my blog Hungry:
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