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Israel tells underweight models to gain weight or get off the runway

In a bid to combat growing rates of eating disorders, Israel's 'photoshop law' bans unnaturally thin models from the catwalk and restricts ads that are digitally altered to make models look skinnier.

By Shira RubinContributor / January 4, 2013

A model wears a creation by designer Efrat Kalig during a show at the Tel Aviv fashion week in Tel Aviv, Israel, in December.

Ariel Schalit/AP


Tel Aviv

“You’re a knockout! Did you gain a little weight?” Israeli fashion photographer and model agent Adi Barkan crows as he greets one of his top models, a towering brunette decked out in a chic black minidress surrounded by the exuberant chaos of the photo shoot in downtown Tel Aviv.  

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This is a celebratory week for Mr. Barkan, as a new law championed by the fashion giant took effect Jan. 1, banning the use of underweight models in local ads and on the catwalk. Its aim is to help curb a rise in eating disorders among those in the fashion industry and the general public.

“Beautiful is not underweight, beautiful is not anorexic,” says Knesset member Rachel Adato, who helped push the law through. “A revolution has begun against the perception of beauty in Israel, [and] this law shatters the anorexic ideal serving as an example for the country’s youth.”

Daria Keller, one of  Barkan’s star models, came to the Simply-U agency from an agency where she says they tried to convince her that her “fullness” would stand in the way of her career. Barkan says she has the perfect measurements. Today, she smiles into the camera with natural confidence. 

“When I was 16, I ate only an apple for three full days, but now I want to stay as Daria,” says Ms. Keller, who has been modeling since that age.

The new law, known as the “photoshop law,” requires models to present their employers with a current doctor’s note confirming that they meet a minimum body mass index (BMI) – a calculation of weight to height proportion – of 18.5, which is considered the lowest threshold for a healthy weight.  Advertisements featuring models who are “photoshopped” or otherwise digitally altered to make them appear thinner must be clearly marked as manipulated images.

'We are the problem'

Barkan says that he has always seen the campaign to promote healthy body images as a matter of life and death.

When a 15-year-old girl named Katy came to him in 1997 for help in finding modeling jobs, he instead immediately brought her to the hospital, where he sat with her every night to make sure she ate. Shortly after Katy was released from the hospital, Barkan appeared as a guest on a morning television show.  The host said to Barkan, "I want to show you something, a girl whose life you saved," and Katy appeared on stage to tell her story and express her gratitude, Barkan recalls.

After his television appearance, Barkan received 174 phone calls from women pleading “Help me, I’m going to die,” he recalls. 

“I saw them all – children, women – everybody wanting to be good-looking.  When I asked them, 'What does it mean?' they said, 'The girls that you shoot.' Then I understood that we are the problem,” Barkan says.

In 2007, when another client, a girl named Hila Elmalich who was diagnosed with anorexia, died in his arms at the hospital, he was spurred to greater action – campaigning for legislation that would help suppress the rising trend of underweight models. 

“We went out on the balcony and she started to smoke a cigarette. She had a heart attack, and fell down upon me. Right then, I took an oath that I would not give up until I pass this law,” Barkan says.

Redefining beauty

His campaign to raise awareness of anorexia, which he had initiated three years earlier with the coordination of Ms. Adato, the Knesset member, gained momentum, despite the fact that illness remained relatively unacknowledged in Israel.  In March 2012 the law was finally pushed through the Knesset.  


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