Israel has passed a law banning extremely underweight models from working, using the World Health Organization’s measure of malnutrition. The law also bans the use of digital enhancements to make models appear thinner than they are. The standard applies to images from foreign media, as well.
They did this back in March, so the major news outlets have not addressed it recently–except for the Atlantic, whose story about this legislation is one of the most balanced I have read. It acknowledges the complexity of eating disorders, which are caused by a variety of factors, social pressure being just one. It addresses the broader social questions such legislation raises: free speech! Corporate rights! Paternalistic government! Protecting our most vulnerable! Women’s rights!
In other words, everything is about partisanship in the U.S. But the article handles it well.
And it narrates the dramatic story of the legislation itself. (How often do we think of legislation as dramatic?)
A prominent fashion photographer and agent met a shockingly thin 15 year old girl, who came to him for career advice. He took her straight to the hospital, where she stayed for 5 months. He visited her daily. And when he spoke on a TV program about the incident, he was deluged by messages from eating disorder sufferers.
So he gave up his status in the industry to fight on their behalf. He came to believe that the crisis was urgent and fatal, and legislation was the best way to save these girls and women. He teamed up with a Knesset member with a medical degree and they muscled it through. Cue the healthy-shaped angels singing.
The protests of the law are somewhat amusing, ranging from denial (“Our girls are not anorexic!” to self-righteous (“Free speech! Where will this government regulation end?”).
There’s another protest with some actual truth to it: BMI does not measure health. True. But honestly? What other measure could models’ doctors use to verify that they are not at risk for anorexia and bulimia-related illnesses? Follow them around all day and weigh their food?
The fact is that eating disorders are the most fatal mental illnesses, according to findings published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
I believe that government should step in where private industry will not. In this case, they have the obligation to protect victims of a mental illness for which social factors are a key aggravator.
Eating disorders have been connected to the same psychological factors that lead to other kinds of addition. Government protects children from the insidious influence of medicinal marijuana shops near schools. We have rules regulating purchase of alcohol and nicotine. Why not protect children from the insidious influence of the media images bombarding us everywhere we look?
More awareness about the images we see in magazines and on billboards will surely help at least some girls and women (and men) understand that these are not real bodies.
And speaking of The Atlantic, this was nice to read. It turns out that there’s a reason I find myself reading this magazine more than others. A broader, deeper, and saner editorial focus on gender issues that, not co-incidentally, evolved as women moved higher up the editorial ranks. (Now that a woman is running the New York Times, will they take the stories about gender equality out of the style section?)
Women’s issues are human issues, people. It’s about time they are given thoughtful treatment in our major news outlets.