The XX Factor

Israel Bans Underweight Fashion Models — So Who’s Hiring Them Now? 

Photo by YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

On Monday, lawmakers in Israel voted to ban models with a Body Mass Index (BMI) below 18.5 from working in the country’s fashion market. Although the BMI scale is frequently maligned as an inaccurate and abstract health measurement tool, the World Health Organization deems a BMI below 18.5 (which translates to 119 pounds on a 5 foot 8 inch woman) to be a sign of malnourishment and in the fashion industry, it’s often a hallmark of excessive dieting and anorexia. 

Banning the use of such models in advertisements is an important step towards broadening the definition of beauty we see represented in the media, which otherwise circles relentlessly around one ever-shrinking ideal. It could help prevent the glamorization of extreme thinness and disordered eating behaviors known as “thinspiration,” or “thinspo,” which currently runs rampant on places like Pinterest, Tumblr and “pro-ana” websites. The Israeli law also requires advertisers to post a disclaimer on images that have been edited to make models appear even thinner, so consumers (especially young girls and women) will know they’re looking at a distorted photo, not an attainable weight loss goal. A disclaimer like that would have come in handy when H&M decided to computer generate the torsos of its lingerie models last December, for example. 

But after my review of Girl Model on Monday, I’m also worrying about where laws like these leave the underweight models who are now out of a job — for the moment just in Tel Aviv, but similar legislation has passed or is pending in Europe, and Israeli Knesset Member Danny Danon says he “has been approached by members of U.S .Congress who are interested in drafting a similar law for American modeling agencies.” As Girl Model reveals, the average girl model isn’t refusing to get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day like Linda Evangelista once claimed — she’s trooping around strange cities to humiliating go-sees, getting hit on and told to lose weight if she wants to work. 

Of course, there are many more girls having their body image gently skewed every time they see yet another Victoria’s Secret commercial than there are working in the international modeling industry. But I’m not sure we should have to rank the needs of the many against the few here. The real culprits are the modeling agencies who wield incredible control over their young charges — just this week, the agency that represents Girl Model’s protagonist, now-17 Nadya Vall, seems to be goading her into rejecting the way she’s portrayed as a victim in the film. Also to blame are magazine editors, fashion designers, and advertising directors who book underweight models, or don’t. Legislation that penalized these parties would do more to change the system and benefit girls everywhere. Danon describes the new Israeli law as a “knockout in the war against anorexia.” But in our thirst for battle, we should make sure this is a war on an unhealthy cultural ideal and the diseases it can involve — not a war on people with anorexia.