I Would Pass That Law

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.


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3 thoughts on “I Would Pass That Law

  1. Inder says:

    Yikes. I am so behind on blog reading and commenting!

    So my first thought when I read this kind of thing is, “Hmm. Would it be possible to do this in the US without violating the First Amendment?” I think the answer is maybe … there are laws that restrict the dissemination of photos that depict illegal activity (child porn, animal brutality, etc.). It would be difficult to draft legislation prohibiting the dissemination of photos of very thin women, just because it may be difficult to show that all thin women are being abused or are unhealthy. It would be hard to draw the line about what is “too thin.” (Like obscenity, you “know it when you see it”?) But I don’t think it’s totally impossible. Interesting …

    I do tend to think that the First Amendment, with all of its conundrums, is a good thing and that it’s worth having to put up with some “offensive” imagery and ideas in order to foster free speech. Because who gets to define “offensive”? It is, indeed, a “slippery slope.” Right now, this means that, legally, you can’t really look at the harm that an image does to its VIEWERS (because the viewers could just choose not to look, at least purportedly), you can only really legislate if the image caused illegal harm to be done to its subjects at the time of the photograph. And there are some good reasons for this, even though it does result in some pretty offensive stuff getting disseminated.

    This probably sounds trite, but I do think that consumers need to take a stand on these issues. I don’t think the answer will be found entirely in legislation. Sorry!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Yeah, the Atlantic piece says much the same thing, but with less legal detail. I’m astonished that Israel could pass such a law. I think that the cultural difficulties in passing something like that here are too overwhelming, as well. Partisanship. Etc.

      • Inder says:

        Well, here it would be done state by state and then taken to the courts. So actually I’m not sure I agree that partisanship would necessarily hold it back. You just need one state crazy enough to try it, as a starting point. And a court that would be willing to uphold it (that part is more complicated these days, of course, but free speech issues are not drawn on strictly partisan lines in the courts – both “liberal” and “conservative” justices tend to be staunch supporters of the First Amendment).

        I would not personally support this as federal legislation! (Maybe I am a little bit like the complainers you mention above, saying, but what about free speech? and isn’t that a little bit paternalistic?)

        Israel, like Western Europe, does not really recognize “free speech” in the way that we do. There are a lot more limitations. And honestly, it seems to work pretty well for them, even if it’s not my ideal. But personally, I still favor the bill of rights, with all of its flaws and controversy. The idea that given free reign, bad and harmful ideas will naturally die out and good ideas will persist is incredibly idealist, but it also has its strengths. Legislating speech has historically only drawn more attention to “forbidden” ideas. Now, this does not mean that there are not a ton of harmful ideas and ideologies out there, all the time. But I’ve yet to come up with a better idea. I do think that the limitations on speech and religious expression (especially, Muslim religious expression) in Europe have backfired in a lot of ways and should be a lesson to us all that the most extreme ideologies actually thrive under a “prohibition.”

        Never mind that I don’t always trust the “majority” to determine what type of speech should be allowed and what shouldn’t. The bill of rights was drafted to protect minority rights against majority oppression, etc., with the (understood well even in/especially in 18th century America) side effect that limitations on expression actually seem to foster the worst and most extreme ideas so individual freedoms can also act to protect the majority against minority factions. This is something that the right wing could get a better handle on! But of course, it’s not all unicorns and rainbows in a world where you can express a variety of extremely harmful, offensive views without any repercussions. It’s just that it’s very possible it’s better than the alternative. Anyhoo. Very interesting!

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