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On Our Radar: Israel Regulates

The Israeli law that prohibits fashion media and advertising from using Photoshop or employing models who fall below the World Health Organization’s standard for malnutrition went into effect this past Wednesday. 

What are the specifics? 

  • Models must produce medical report for three months before a shoot
  • Their body mass index is not allowed dip below 18.5
  • Advertisers will have to clearly mark images that have been digitally altered

According to a detailed piece that came out on The Atlantic back in May:

Rachel Adato, an Israeli parliament member with a background in medicine, as well as prominent photographer and fashion model agent Adi Barkan, championed the law.

Barkan has been working to help girls with eating disorders since he discovered the epidemic firsthand in 1997, when a 15-year-old girl named Caty asked to meet with him to understand what a “model should look like.” She arrived at the meeting five-foot seven-inches, weighing 79 pounds. “It was obvious she required hospitalization,” Barkan told me over email. Caty was hospitalized for 5 months, during which time Barkan says he visited daily.

A few months after Caty was released, Barkan appeared as a guest on an Israeli lifestyle TV show to discuss his work. “During the interview the hostess told me she had a surprise for me,” he recalled, “a girl who claims I saved her life, and then Caty came in and told her story.”

"The following morning there were 174 messages on my answering machine from anorexics and bulimics asking for help. I met all of them."

An icon in the fashion world, Barkan tried to deal with the issue from the inside: appealing for change within his beloved industry, to an overwhelmingly negative response of doubts, jabs, and apathy.

"I became immersed in this world very quickly. I gave up the agency and photography and delved into the dark world of anorexics and bulimics," he said. "I realized that only legislation can change the situation. There was no time to educate so many people, and the change had be forced on the industry. There was no time to waste, so many girls were dieting to death."

This specific article is really interesting, even though it’s a bit longer than your usual “news” articles. It talks specifically about whether or not the United States would ever adopt similar rules and regulations, which according to the article, seems unlikely. 

"Developing an eating disorder is a complex process in terms of specific constellation of personality traits that one’s born with," La Grange explained. "Genetic, environmental, societal things have to come together in a vulnerable individual, so it’s not just one piece that makes it possible."

"What this [legislation] can achieve is that this vulnerable individual is protected from environmental things — she may not develop [an] eating disorder, but since they are so complex it will be difficult to say," Le Grange explained.

The media buzz surrounding the new legislation may be one of its biggest benefits, argued David Herzog, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and director of the Harris Center for education and advocacy in eating disorders at the Massachusetts general hospital. “I think the more attention to this area the more likely we are to the change.”

Still, turning that talk into action — especially government action — can be tricky and controversial. What is the state’s role in regulating images that reinforce socially harmful perceptions? At what point does an image become too dangerous to publish? Where is the line between the public interest and the free speech rights of media and advertisers?

"I’m supportive of government intervening to provide better health for public but I also want to be careful about what we’re asking the federal government to legislate," Herzog said. "So how do you try to limit the negative forces? I want to keep the dialogue going, they’re onto something that’s important, we want to do things that support the healthy development of our nation."

Donald Downs, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and an expert on the First Amendment, says that it would be very tough to pass something like Israel’s law in the U.S. Congress. “In the U.S., it would be hard to justify this type of law on either legal or normative policy grounds,” he said. “The Israeli law is paternalistic in that it prohibits something because of the effect it might have on others in the longer term.”

The complexity of eating disorders can make it difficult to justify complete legislation. “In addition to the legal aspect of the case, such a law would be in tension with American cultural support for free speech in cases in which the harm is not direct or clear,” Downs went on. “We are much more wary of giving the state the power to prohibit expression in such contexts because the harm is not usually direct.” 

As someone who believes that a lot of real changes happen through legislations and political processes, I see both sides of the argument. In the perfect world, there would be enough awareness and education so that everyone can simply do the right thing without the government getting involved. What do you think?

Read the article in its entirety here.

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