Last month, while riding the metro on my way to work, I was checking the daily news in one of the local newspapers. This particular newspaper seldom takes interest in foreign affairs, except, of course, if they concern serious matters such as nuclear threats, terrorism activities, mass murders, etc. On this occasion, the newspaper contained an article on the enactment of a law by the Knesset (Israeli parliament) banning advertisements featuring models who are too thin.
Upon arriving at work that morning, I was contacted by a colleague, a beautiful not- too- thin woman, who wanted to know if I was aware of the new law. As I am the Law Library of Congress’s Senior Foreign Law Specialist responsible for legal research on Israel, I was contacted by several other colleagues regarding this new law. People were really excited about it! My colleagues’ excitement was apparently shared by many around the globe. Numerous newspapers and media outlets picked up the story.
This unified position reminded me of a great Israeli film, A Matter of Size, where the characters (people of larger size) rebel against the “Dictatorship of the Thinness” by leaving the diet workshop in which they participated to “discover the world of sumo, where fat people like them are honored and appreciated.”
But realistically speaking, what did the new Israeli law on underweight models intend to achieve? Did it give all of us a green light to eat to our heart’s content? Well, not exactly. According to the explanatory notes attached to the bill for the Law, Law for Restricting Weight in the Modeling Industry, 5772-2012, the legislation was designed to diminish the negative impact on positive body image and self esteem, and to deter the consequent development of eating disorders in Israel as a result of being exposed to advertising that features extremely thin models.
A 2010 report by Knesset Research and Information Center titled “Eating Disorders among Children and Teenagers: Description of the Phenomenon, its prevention and Identification” noted the rising number of eating disorder cases in Israel. The report stated that the media is one of the venues for disseminating norms related to weight and personal appearance. It cited the findings of a 2005 research (see p. 7) that had concluded that Israeli media, by including only one tenth of the images of weight-challenged persons, had cultivated a stereotypical image of “thinness, beauty, success and health” and conveyed a message that associated being overwight “with lack of self control and talent as well as with low health. The hidden message in these texts tells the individual to resort to procedures of body change and weight reduction….”
Law for Restricting Weight in the Modeling Industry, 5772-2012, which the Knesset passed on March 19, 2012, addresses the impact of distorted images—specifically in the fashion media industry. The Law prohibits the production of any advertisement that depicts a model without a medical authorization presented by the model certifying that he or she is not underweight in accordance with a specified Body Mass Index (BMI). The Law provides that a BMI lower than 18.5 for adults will be considered underweight for the purpose of its application. The Law further provides a list of specific BMI values for minors correlated with gender and age. The BMI calculation must be based on a medical exam conducted by a physician within three months prior to the date of the photographing of the model for the advertisement.
The Law also requires that advertisements that depict a person’s image, which have been graphically manipulated for the purpose of narrowing body measurements, should include a clearly recognizable clarification regarding its alteration. The clarification must cover at least seven percent of the total space occupied by the advertisement.
World experts in eating disorders applauded the new Israeli Law. Cynthia M. Bulik, PhD of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine opined that there are “no downsides” to letting girls and women know that these pictures “do not reflect real women’s bodies.” A Columbia University psychiatrist, B. Timothy Walsh, MD, also praised the new Israeli measure. He cautioned, however, that “Researchers know very little about what factors drive those with eating disorders and who will develop them.” While the measure may “reduce the pressure for girls and women to achieve unrealistically low weight and therefore to engage in unhealthy diets,” it may not drive down eating disorders. What it can do, according to Dr. Walsh, is “‘reduce disordered eating’— a pattern of eating that is unhealthful, if not pathological.”
By adopting the Law the Israeli Knesset expressed its view that protecting the public from the serious effects of eating disorders justifies limiting the freedom of expression in the modeling industry.
This view was criticized by a US constitutional law expert, Professor Jonathan Turley, in his blog, The Rubens Regulation: Knesset Tells Skinny Models To Eat Or Starve. Prof. Turley expressed
significant reservations about both the constitutionality (in the US) and practicality (anywhere) of such laws. Such restrictions on the right of models and photographers limits free expression and artistic freedom in my view. Even when viewed as merely commercial speech, there remain legitimate speech concerns.
In an additional blog, “Arizona Legislator Moves To Bar Airbrushing Of Models,” Professor Turley expressed his view that a law that would restrict the freedom to alter the appearance of models could not be legal in the United States.
Judging by the world’s interest in the Israeli new legislation I expect that a discussion of this issue will continue.