The XX Factor

Laws Scrutinizing Women’s Bodies Will Do Nothing To Prevent Eating Disorders

Photo by YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

Katy, I share your concerns about rampant anorexia in the fashion industry, but I wholeheartedly disagree that “everyone’s needs are met when the government requires eating-disordered models to gain weight” (as Israel recently did). In the end, no woman’s needs—whether she’s an “underweight” model or an “overweight” layperson—are met by a law that scrutinizes female bodies and requires them to be of a certain size.

And my concern isn’t solely with the rail-thin models who might be out of a job thanks to Israel’s new law; unlike Virginia, I don’t think Israel’s fashion industry is under any obligation to book emaciated models (though I agree that agencies’, designers’, editors’ and advertisers’ exploitation of the young women in the modeling industry deserves our condemnation). Rather, I fear that government regulation of models’ bodies will do little to widen the narrow beauty standards presented in the mainstream media and that regulation will actually contribute to the problem it purports to solve.

First, let’s think about how this law will be enforced: models will now be required to bring doctors’ notes no older than three months certifying that they have a body-mass index over 18.5 to photo shoots. Leaving aside the validity of BMI as a metric of health (in short: it sucks), this method of enforcement will place an irritating, unrealistic, frankly draconian burden on models.

But more importantly, it will encourage models to engage in even more unhealthy eating behaviors than the industry already pushes. Do you really think agencies and creative directors are suddenly going to start preferring bigger bodies just because the Israeli government tells them to? I’m not holding my breath. I predict that agencies will continue to pressure models to be as thin as possible—which will force models into an unhealthy pattern that mirrors the ritual amateur wrestlers engage in to “make weight.” Models will have to pack on pounds very quickly to pass the 18.5 BMI cutoff once every three months, then they’ll have to lose that weight just as quickly to meet agencies’ aesthetic standards. Everyone agrees that yo-yoing like this is dangerous—but I fear yo-yoing is exactly what the new law will inadvertently force models to do.

But even more importantly, the broader social and cultural implications of this law are extremely troubling. The twin afflictions of anorexia and compulsive overeating—and the wide array of disordered eating patterns that occupy the space between those two extremes—are caused (or at least exacerbated) by the message that the size and shape of a woman’s body is of the utmost importance. Girls grow up watching TV shows and movies in which almost every woman is thin—and the ones that aren’t are usually the target of ridicule or scorn. The so-called obesity crisis has led to campaigns that tell children that being fat is more or less the worst thing in the world. Magazines constantly monitor female celebrities’ bodies, sounding the alarm every time they get too fat or too thin, tsk-tsking over their eating habits, arbitrating whether they’re “hot” or “not.”

Israel’s new law doesn’t defy this culture—it’s an extension of it. Any law that requires individuals to weigh a certain amount reinforces the sexist, pernicious notion that the size of a woman’s body is other people’s business.

I would absolutely like to see more types of bodies represented in the media. But a law that scrutinizes women’s bodies even more than they’re already scrutinized isn’t going to make that happen.