By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
The Israeli Parliament has moved to ban skinny models from appearing in that nation's media. It has won approval in Tel Aviv on Monday, and to American experts on eating disorders, the measure is a clear step toward a key goal: promoting more realistic body images among girls and women.
It is unclear whether such a measure can drive down eating disorders, which are thought to afflict some 7 million American women and 1 million American men, and as many as 2% of Israeli girls ages 14 to 18.
The ban includes not using models on catwalks or in advertising destined for the Israeli market if they “look underweight” or if their body-mass index falls below 18.5 — the World Health Organization's definition of underweight. If Israeli media outlets alter photographs to make models appear thinner, the measure requires them to disclose that fact. A 6-foot model would need to weigh more than 136 pounds under the new measure. A model whose BMI falls below that would be required to have a note from a doctor certifying that she is not underweight before working in Israel.
Rachel Adato, the Israeli lawmaker who sponsored the bill, said this week that she hoped it would help to bring Israeli women's and girls' notions of beauty more in line with what is attainable, and thereby drive down eating disorders.
The media’s use of women with unrealistically thin bodies may drive up rates of anorexia nervosa and bulimia. A publication in 2002 of a study of Fijian girls suggested that the introduction of television — and images of thin models — in the remote islands quickly drove up cases of eating disorders.
Duke University eating disorders specialist Cynthia M. Bulik gave “unequivocal kudos” to the provision that requires media outlets to disclose their graphic alteration of women's bodies, saying there are “no downsides” to letting girls and women know that these pictures “do not reflect real women's bodies.”
“The visual effect is so powerful and such a dangerous lure for girls and women who feel like they have to match this societal thin ideal,” said Bulik, author of “The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like With Who You Are.” Bulik cautioned, however, that using BMI to identify models with eating disorders is an imperfect strategy, since not all women who are underweight suffer from anorexia nervosa or bulimia, and not all who suffer from those eating disorders is underweight.