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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.

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Adato, a former lawyer and gynecologist, says she hoped it would promote a healthy body image among Israeli women, and consequently lower the rates of anorexia and other eating disorders. As is the case in many other countries, eating disorders in Israel have risen with globalization and the subsequent import of American goods and culture, say experts here.

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Some 3 percent of Israeli girls between the ages of 11 and 18 suffer from eating disorders, a rate similar to other industrialized Western countries, says Sigal Gooldin, a Hebrew University medical sociologist.

The law is a “symbolic achievement” in the battle to confront eating disorders, she says, but admits that it’s a “small step if girls are still consuming the same popular images and influenced by their surroundings."

A harsh spotlight

The concept of extreme thinness as the beauty ideal exploded with the rise of British supermodel Twiggy in the 1960s and Kate Moss in the 1990s. Critics say that the impossible standards promoted by designers and agencies have led to an epidemic in eating disorders, especially in young women.

The deaths of young models from complications of eating disorders in recent years have put the fashion industry in the hot seat, and put more pressure on governments to take action to change industry norms.

Italy and India banned underweight models from the catwalk in 2006. In the US and Britain, the fashion industry has internal guidelines because legislative restrictions on the industry are considered an infringement on commercial freedoms.

Despite potential roadblocks in implementation, including resistance from within the model community and the relevance of the law only to Israeli advertising companies, the law is a desperately needed response to a growing social crisis, says Dana Weinberg, director of the organization Women and their Bodies, which promotes healthy attitudes among Jewish and Arab women in Israel.

Like many other Western countries, Israel sees its model gliteratti as national treasures. Daily paparazzi shots and other snippets of their daily life regularly flood Israeli websites and social media. "The very fact that the law was passed sends a significant message against extreme thinness,” Ms. Weinberg says.

The flood of American cultural images, often cited as a key cause of eating disorders, may be a big factor in the rising rates of eating disorders, but US influence may also have spurred awareness of and openness to treating the problem.

In both the US and Israel, experts believe that these illnesses often go unreported because of social stigmas, but the estimated rate of eating disorders in both countries is somewhere between 2 and 3 percent. Barkan says that until Ms. Elmalich's death in 2007, there was little awareness of eating disorders in Israel, making his crusade against the fashion industry's warped beauty ideals a daunting task.

Pushback

Some in the modeling community are skeptical that the law can have a real impact, and argue that legislation should focus on health rather than weight. Some models insist that genetics, not eating choices, determine their weight, and resent what they say is a punishment from the government. There is not yet a proposal for a way to evaluate the less quantifiable measure of health. 

The Israeli model and television host Yael Goldman called the new law “absurd,” saying "models were always skinny and will always be, that’s the way it is.”

Daria Keller begs to differ. 

"Today, models don’t have to be afraid, from themselves, also,” she says, referring to the growing social acceptance of average-sized models. “They can say, 'I can eat pizza, or a hamburger, because actually we’re too smart to ruin our lives for this.' ”

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