On January 1, Israel passed a law banning fashion models with a Body Mess Index (BMI) lower than 18.5 and requiring magazines to indicate when an image has been graphically adapted (aka Photoshopped to make the models looks skinnier). In the 10 days since the law has gone into effect, media outlets all over the world have heralded the news as a sign that we’re finally responding appropriately to the health hazards of fashion modeling, both for the models themselves and for the billions of little girls and boys who want to grow up to be just like them. What impact does the law really have?

What’s the Deal?

Photo by Marissa Angell

According to the new law, showing up with smoky eyes and a tantalizing smile is no longer enough to make it on the runway. In order to be hired, potential models have to present agencies with an official doctor’s certificate saying they have a BMI of at least 18.5, which is the lowest number included in the “normal weight” category of the BMI standards. The law is the lovechild of fashion and politics, specifically the fashion photographer Adi Barkan and Israeli politicians Dr. Rachel Adatto and Danny Dannon.

Though the Israeli law is the first of its kind, the legislation represents growing concern for the health of models, and the realization that many of the Barbie-esque creatures we see prowling the catwalk are quite possibly anorexic and at risk for health problems. It all started back in 2006, when fashion organizations in Milan and Madrid banned models with BMIs lower than 18. Several years later, in May 2012, the Council of Fashion Designers of America and all international editions of Vogue signed on to The Health Initiative, a pledge to feature only healthy models that promote a healthy body image. All parties involved with the initiative agreed to several stipulations, including offering snack time and nutritious eats on set and not working with models who exhibit signs of eating disorders.

Why It Matters

Right now the average BMI for fashion models (in the U.S.) is 17.1. That counts as clinically underweight, according to BMI. Almost half have a BMI lower than 17. In fact, some sources suggest most models meet the criteria for anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder characterized by the relentless pursuit of thinness, the loss of more weight than is appropriate for a person’s age and height, and distorted body image. Though it might be easier to fit into the latest trends when we’re the same size as the hanger, the consequences of anorexia are extremely serious and, if left untreated, can be fatal. Israel’s latest legislation has, for example, stirred up memories of the death of Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos who suffered a heart attack that was linked to severe anorexia.

The issue isn’t just about the models, either. In the U.S., about 0.9 percent of women and 0.3 percent of men have been diagnosed as anorexic, though presumably many others suffer from undiagnosed eating disordersThe prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Hudson, J.I., Hiripi, E., Pope, H.G. Jr., et al. Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School and Biological Psychiatry Laboratory, McLean Hospital, Belmont, Massachusetts. Biological Psychiatry 2007;61(3):348-58.. In Israel, a 2009 study found nearly a third of young women think anorexia is a means of gaining social acceptance. Other research suggests that gawking at uber-thin models makes young women feel they need to lose weightExposure to the mass media and weight concerns among girls. Field, A.E., Cheung, L., Wolf, A.M., et al. Channing Laboratory, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts. Pediatrics 1999;103(3):E36..

Most journalists have approached the ban as a step in the right direction when it comes to combatting health issues in the fashion community and beyond. Still, some media outlets argue that “banning” skinny models won’t change much in the fashion industry. At least Israel’s move has spurred national discussion about a serious, and pervasive, health issue.

Do you think Israel’s move to ban too-thin models will change anything in the fashion industry? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author directly at @ShanaDLebowitz.