Israeli Ban on Underweight Models Is Good for Everyone

What Women Really Think
March 22 2012 12:09 PM

Israel's New Ban on Underweight Models Is Good for Everyone

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Israel just passed a law banning malnourished models from photo shoots. Should the obesity-conscious United States do the same?

Photograph by Stefan Gosatti/Getty Images.

Mazel tov to Israel, as of Monday the first country to pass a law against the use of underweight models in fashion advertising. You’ve heard the story, but here it is again: According to new legislation, models must arrive at photo shoots with a certificate from their doctors, no more than three months old, confirming that they fall above the minimum “healthy” body mass index of 18.5.

Some complain that the law discriminates against the naturally underweight (a subgroup that accounts for fewer than 5 percent of women).  And yesterday afternoon, Virginia Sole-Smith opined on XX Factor that it unfairly targeted the unnaturally underweight—the emaciated Israeli models who, enjoined by agencies and designers to starve themselves for beauty, are now out of a job.

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“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,” Sole-Smith writes, and while I applaud her compassion, I fail to see how requiring malnourished young women to reach a basement level of health is an act of hostility. It strikes me more as a win-win: Young girls don’t have to contend with idealized scarecrows in their magazines and models are urged to consume the nourishment they need. Wouldn’t the real “war on people with anorexia” entail allowing underweight women in the fashion industry to continue to waste away?

We can honor Sole-Smith’s injunction not to pose the “needs of the many” against those “of the few” by recognizing that everyone’s needs are met when the government requires eating-disordered models to gain weight. As for the small number of women the law bars from pursuing their professional goals at their natural BMI—surely Israel can find a remedy for that injustice once the overwhelming majority of models no longer face a choice between artificial wispiness and a different career.

On a side note, when Slate partnered with Intelligence Squared to helm a debate over whether “obesity is the government’s business,” I was stunned to hear from several nutrition experts that the law should play a role in the fight against fat but not in the one against eating disorders. Asked if the White House might regulate both junk food commercials and ads celebrating dangerously skinny women, health-community gurus were likely to reply that shrinking models—unlike expanding waistlines—were an industry responsibility.

If so, it’s a responsibility the fashion world has largely neglected. Israel’s move represents a step in the right direction. 

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

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