‘I know this campaign can help save girls,’ says the Israeli fashion photographer who championed the law against underweight models.
By Sarah Carnvek
When an Israeli fashion photographer first came up with the idea for legislation banning the use of anorexic models, the industry — journalists, designers and models — thought he was out of his mind. Then the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, plunged Israel into the spotlight when it passed a law banning the use of underweight models in advertising.
Israel’s new legislation is the first time a government has made it illegal to show half-starved models in commercials. According to the “PhotoShop Law,” advertising agencies also must disclose whether they’ve digitally altered pictures to make models look thinner.
"There are more and more calls coming from society to include healthier-looking models but the bottom line is, super-skinny is still being seen as the ultimate beauty," says Adi Barkan, the photographer and model agent who helped champion the law together with a number of Israeli lawmakers.
The new law says women and men cannot be hired for modeling jobs unless a doctor certifies their body mass index (BMI) — a measure expressing a ratio of weight to height — as no less than 18.5. That means if you’re five feet, seven inches tall (170 cm), you must weigh at least 118 pounds (53 kg).
In the United States, an estimated eight million people have eating disorders, which have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate of all causes of death for females 15 to 24 years old.
While the Israeli government’s legislation is the talk of the international fashion world, Barkan says to really revolutionize the fashion industry it has to be changed from inside out.
Back in 1997, Barkan met a 15-year-old aspiring model who came to him for a job. He saw how skinny she was, took her straight to the hospital, and visited her every night to make sure she was eating. While he helped save her life, 10 years later he wasn’t so lucky.
In 2007, Barkan’s friend, 33-year-old model Hila Elmalich, died in his arms as he rushed her to the hospital. The veteran fashion photographer – who worked in London, Paris and New York for over a decade before returning to Israel to open his own modeling agency — promised himself that he would try and change the way the industry was running.
"I know this campaign can save girls," says Barkan. "Every day I get 10 new requests from young girls to come to the Israeli Center for Changing Eating Habits. Fifty-percent of these girls’ image problems come from the media. We need to show a healthier style."
The international buzz about Israel’s pioneering legislation has been positive. Legal experts in the US, however, say such a law would be difficult to imitate because of American cultural support for free speech in cases where the harm is not direct or clear.
But Barkan believes the changes that need to be made begin with fashion designers and not lawmakers.
“Today’s models are about two sizes smaller than those who worked 10 years ago. Those two sizes are the critical difference between a healthy, slim and sexy model and one suffering from the curse of deadly eating disorders,” he says. "The fashion designers are the ones who have distorted fantasies they sell to women. As soon as one designer will change, everything will change."
A new model of models
Barkan is on a mission to keep the fashion industry safer for young models.
Through his agency, SimplyU, he educates models about proper eating and weight through a 12-session course. He plans to join forces with the Ford Modeling Agency in New York to offer the course there.
In addition, some of those who helped push the Israeli legislation forward are planning a trip to North America this spring to lobby the US fashion industry to make a change.
Barkan is working to keep awareness about anorexia and other eating disorders high on the agenda.
"Parents have to compliment their children and educate them about their bodies before the television gets to them," Barkan says. “A child looks at the TV and they want to be skinny just because they see skinny girls."
The models at his agency not only meet the required BMI, some are even "chubby" by industry standards.
"People want to see normal people in ads but the designer, who rules, is still refusing to comply," he says. "The new law is for today’s youth so that we can change the next generation. Nothing big will happen until they see a poster or billboard with someone that looks normal."
Barkan remains hopeful that change is on its way, pointing to two recent ad campaigns in Israel that included models each weighing 140 pounds (63 kg).
"Half a year ago, they never would have been used. We’re not there yet, but we’re making progress. I believe that a company that wants to look its customers in the eye has to make the change."