Israel Bans Skinny Models: Should The United States Pass The Same Legislation?

By Jessica Barbanel January 2, 2013 4:19 PM EST
Caroline Pires

Caroline Pires - who has been featured in a Ralph Lauren campaign and on the show "Army Wives" - says that when she started to "fill out" and get curves that many clients didn't want to book her. (Photo: Caroline Pires)

Israel's new law banning skinny models that went into effect on Tuesday has reignited discussion in the American fashion industry about whether similar legislation should be passed in the United States.

Lynn Grefe, president and CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, says the law - which bans models with a body-mass index of less than 18.5 from appearing in ads - should be used as a blueprint for a new law in America. "It takes strong leadership to get this engine on the tracks," Grefe told me when the law was first passed in 2011. "If this country took this step it would send a message on a much bigger level." 

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"Maybe the ads don't cause the eating disorder, but they certainly contribute to it," Grefe said. "Looking at images of skinny models without a single pore or wrinkle makes girls -- and even boys -- feel like they're not normal."

Caroline Pires, a 20-year-old model in New York City, agrees. Spotted on a New York street by a model scout when she was 12, Pires quickly landed a highly coveted Ralph Lauren campaign. But when she turned 16, Pires started to gain a bit of weight. She had new curves, and clients weren't happy.

"I was now a size 2, and I definitely had hips," the 5-foot-11 brunette who has had a recurring role on Army Wives told me. "That was considered unacceptable."

Clients loved Pires' pictures, but when she came to the showroom to try on the clothes she couldn't squeeze into the 0 or 00 sizes. "I lost out many times because they didn't think I was thin enough."

With a relatively tiny population of 7.6 million, Israel seems an unlikely agent of change. But the U.S. Congress made a similar move last February, launching the first-ever caucus to address eating disorders. Milan and Madrid have also instituted similar guidelines for their Fashion Weeks. Now model managers, fashion designers and editors are wondering if the United States should consider similar legislation.

"There are always models who are trying to fit into a body they don't have," Michael Farkas, a New York-based talent manager who has worked with Ford, Elite and Wilhelmina, said. "But this law could adversely affect models who are naturally thin. Agencies and advertisers aren't asking for certain measurements to be mean or manipulative. There's a standard sample size of clothing that a model needs to fit into."

Farkas emphasized that top agencies are vigilant about sending home models who are unhealthy. "None of the agencies I've worked with actively supported anyone who was in distress," he explained. "Most agents would confront the problem and try to assist the model."

Though Israeli lawmakers, like Rachel Adato, who sponsored the bill, are concerned about the health of models, they are more alarmed by the growing number of eating disorders in the pre-teen and teen population. Grefe sees a direct link between these advertisements and, what the organization estimates as, 24 million eating disorders in the United States each year.

Actresses feel similar pressure. Most of the covers of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar feature celebrities today. So celebs now find themselves scrambling to fit into sizes they never had to squeeze into before. "Four is the sample size for most editorial shoots," Pamela Watson, a stylist who works with Jessica Simpson, explained. "Unless you have that body type, it's difficult to fit into the mold."

As a result, Watson has seen many of her clients "freak out" on set if they are not fitting into the clothes they're given. To prevent mental breakdowns, Watson has cut labels out of clothing so stars don't obsess about the number. "I don't have time for a mental breakdown when I'm trying to get someone on the red carpet or set."

Before Spanx was invented, Watson used to Saran Wrap a celebrity's stomach so it would look narrow and tight. She admits that Photoshop has made her job easier, but it hasn't made celebrities any less nervous.

When lunch arrives on the set, many stars move the food around their plates without consuming much at all, Watson says. "They put food on their plates so it looks like they're eating. But they then [shuffle] the food around like chess pieces. So most of it goes in the garbage." By that point, Watson says, other people on the set aren't paying attention.

Despite these pressures, Adam Moore, a wellness coach and president of Moore Creative Living, and Sharon Gesthalter, an Israeli brand strategist, both feel that the focus on Body Mass Index, or BMI, is misguided.

"BMI doesn't give us an accurate sense of what's going on with the body," Moore said. "You could have two women with the same BMI. One is healthy and the other isn't." One of the problems, trainers contend, is that BMI doesn't account for the ratio between muscle and fat.

Moore and Gesthalter also suspect that models will find quick ways to gain and lose weight in order to get around the law. "Is this law around to save models? Or are we trying to change the way little girls think?" Moore questioned. "Skinny dolls and cartoons send a message, too."

Gesthalter agreed. "The intention of the law is good," Gesthalter, who has worked on Israeli ad campaigns, said. "But the solution is off. I would prefer to see people devising educational programs for children and adults."

Nevertheless, Gesthalter believes that a Photoshop disclosure has merits. "Where do you draw the line?" she asked, referring to digitally altering photos. "Advertising is a big industry and we're not going to eradicate it. So we need to work with what we have."

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