In this age of skinny models and magazine airbrushing, the importance of promoting healthy body image is a serious issue.
Many believe that the overwhelming depiction of abnormally skinny models and actors in advertising and popular culture contributes to disordered eating – leaving perfectly normal teenagers, women and men convinced that compared to the images they see all around them, they are overweight and must become even slimmer in order to be attractive. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, nearly 70 percent of girls in grades five through 12 said magazine images influence their ideals of a perfect body.
Moreover the widespread digital alteration of photos (“Photoshopping”) in advertising – which is often used to make already thin models appear even thinner – only exacerbates the problem (for example, see this Ralph Lauren advertisement, and the Dove video ‘evolution of a model’).
Eating disorders – anorexia nervosa and bulimia – are a growing problem in Australian society. Approximately one in 100 adolescent girls develop anorexia nervosa, making it the third most common chronic illness in girls, after obesity and asthma. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, with a death rate higher than that of major depression.
The Australian Government and the fashion industry have started to recognise the possible dangers of these widespread practices in the fashion, advertising and entertainment industries. In July 2010, the Australian Government endorsed a Voluntary Code of Conduct on Body Image, which outlines principles to guide the media, advertising and fashion industries. And recently 19 editors of Vogue magazines around the world have made a pact to project the image of healthy models. They agreed to ‘not knowingly work with models under the age of 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder’.
But do these voluntary pacts/codes go far enough?
Some don’t think so. The former editor/publisher of Cosmopolitan Mia Freedman has declared that Australia’s voluntary code is “ineffective”. Freedman said in April:
“We were optimistic in hoping that the industry would get on board with things like declaring Photoshop and… promoting more diversity in the model that they photographed but I’m sad to say that has not happened at all. In fact the industry has probably put up its middle finger and roundly ignored that code of conduct.”
Those concerned about this problem, both in Australia and internationally, may now be looking at new legislation in Israel as a possible “model” for a more robust resolution to this potentially serious health issue.
Israel is now the first country to formally legislate a ban against underweight models.
As Australian Senator Helen Polley (ALP, Tasmania) recently pointed out in Parliament when calling for better standards in the fashion industry:
“In Israel a new law was passed on 19 March 2012 which requires male and female models to have a BMI, or body mass index, of no less than 18.5-a standard used by the World Health Organisation-or a note from a doctor saying that they are not underweight before they can be hired for a modeling job. The legislation also bans use of models who ‘look underweight’, and creators of ads must disclose whether they used Photoshop or graphics programs to manipulate images to make the models look slimmer.”
Adi Barkan, an Israeli fashion photographer and model agent, lobbied the Knesset for years to pass this law, he told CNN:
“Something has happened in the last 20 years. Always, the model was skinny but not too skinny…And I found the difference between skinny, [being] thin and too thin, is the little difference between life and death.”
Barkan speaks from personal experience, as a model friend of his Hila Elmalich, died in his arms after suffering an eating disorder. He said:
“We don’t know how much power we have. We can kill people and we can save people”.
The Israeli law has no criminal consequences and can be enforced only through civil litigation. SBS reported:
“…lawmakers have spent years deciding what action to take to curb an alarming number of Israelis suffering from eating disorders. The Knesset’s Research and Information Center told lawmakers that there are about 1,500 children, including teens, diagnosed with eating disorders in Israel annually. Knesset members relied on data presented to them that linked eating disorders to exposure to media images that glorify thinness.”
Other countries, including Australia, will likely be keenly studying the outcome of this Israeli legislative initiative in the coming months to determine if they want to take similar measures against underweight models and Photoshopping.
Senator Polley is already calling for a change here in line with the Israeli precedent, saying:
“I believe that in Australia we should be moving towards ensuring that all our printed media and all our electronic media carry a disclaimer that identifies whether or not a photograph has been altered or digitally enhanced.”
Policymakers might be wise to follow Senator Polley’s advice and look what can be learned from Israel’s efforts to promote healthy body image – because as Barkan suggested, it is not just an issue about beauty, it can be a matter of life and death.