“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.' ”