It might not be the biggest story coming out of Israel this month, but in this
case, the size is important. On January 1, a law came into effect barring
underweight models from appearing in commercials and restricting the use of
Photoshop to alter the models’ dimensions in advertisements.
The bill is
a thing of beauty: In a two-track approach, agencies are required to refrain
from employing models who do not provide a doctor’s certificate attesting they
are not underweight – defined by a body mass index (BMI) of less than 18.5 – and
photos that have been graphically adapted to make the models look thinner will
have to carry a notice to that effect, similar to the “Smoking can endanger your
health” warnings on cigarette packets.
The idea is to bring about a
change in perception and to broadcast the message that beauty is more than
skin-deep while reducing the number of super-thin models suffering from
larger-than-life eating disorders.
Its supporters hope the new law will
make “heroin chic” seem like a bad trip and turn the country’s fashion models
into lifesaving role models.
The law was initiated by Rachel Adatto, a
physician who served as an MK for Kadima but has moved to the Tzipi Livni Party,
and Likud Beytenu MK Danny Danon, a former chairman of the Knesset Committee for
the Rights of Children.
But the man putting all his weight behind it is
Fashion photographer Barkan runs SIMPLY U, one of the
country’s most successful modeling agencies, under the slogan “Returning to the
Barkan admits his relentless campaigning is to help make
up for past sins.
I first interviewed him on the heavy topic two years
ago, when the preliminary bill was being discussed in the cabinet and the
Knesset. Barkan recalled how his commitment deepened when, in 2007, 33-year-old
Hila Elmalich died in his arms as he rushed the anorexic model to the
This week he told me he was “ecstatic” that the law had finally
gone into effect. “I feel like I’m really saving lives,” he said. “It was the
second happiest day of my life. The first was the day my daughter was
Barkan said the majority of female models suffer from
undernourishment: “They would rather their periods stop than add a kilogram.
We’re talking about a life-and-death matter.”
He has been promoting his
“Be beautiful and stay alive” campaign for more than a decade, but his passion
hasn’t wavered despite the setbacks and opposition from within the
A similar bill backed by former MK Inbal Gavrieli was discussed
in the Knesset several years ago, but parliament was dispersed before it came up
for a vote in the plenum.
That’s why the law represents to Barkan what he
describes as “the last chance we had of saving these lives.”
success of Israeli models abroad has grown over the years, the size of the
models has shrunk, Barkan notes. “Today’s models are about two sizes smaller
than those who worked a decade or so ago. Those two sizes are the critical
difference between a healthy, slim and sexy model and one suffering from deadly
“The time has come to think about ourselves and our
children and take responsibility for what we show them. Too thin is not
He is currently helping some 130 girls through the Israeli Center
for Changing Eating Habits.
Barkan describes a world in which the models
are literally hungry for success. Part of the beauty of the law, he said, is
that it comes from the fashion world and not from the field of health
“Would-be models turn up for an audition and are told to lose
five kilos,” he said. “But it never stops there. They will keep on dieting and
keep on losing weight. Once a girl gets into such a cycle, she is emotionally
“If I say to a model, ‘You look good but you must put on three
kilos’ it has more of an effect on her than if someone says it’s not healthy to
be so thin.”
Barkan hopes that the message of healthy models conveyed in
the law will be carried around the world and says he has received good feedback
on the subject already. The problem of models “dying” to get into the business
is not unique to Israel, after all.
Barkan has also actively tried to get
photographers see the bigger picture. If models are starving for attention and
the general public is buying into this reduced body image, it is the
photographers and the advertisers who are feeding us all this diet.
I interviewed a well-known choreographer working with a company of young dancers
many years ago, I mentioned that some of the girls were not so light on their
toes, as it were. The dance mentor told me she made a point of never commenting
on a young woman’s weight because, like Barkan, she had found from experience
that it could set someone off down the slippery slope to anorexia – and not
everyone who slides into anorexia has the strength to climb back out of
One of the benefits of what is being called “the Photoshop law” is
that it puts the subject clearly on the table.
Barkan and the law’s
promoters hope to change the lives and perceptions of more than just the wannabe
supermodels. They want young girls (and boys) – and their parents – to see
healthy role models in key positions in the entertainment industry and on TV,
where the super-thin still rule, creating an unhealthy example.
“It was a
very complicated law to pass,” Adatto told me this week. “There were issues of
freedom of employment, as well as proving the harm that can be caused, and there
were a lot of big interests who did not want this law.
When it finally
passed, I felt it was a cause for celebration.
It sends out the message
that there is no connection between being skinny and being
While most of us can relate more to the normal-size model or
TV presenter, at the moment you have a fat chance of finding them.
calling on the heads of big companies and major advertisers to use ‘healthy’
models,” says Barkan. “I tell marketing personnel and CEOs to think of the
message they’re giving their own daughters.”
The mega-success of Israeli
model Bar Rafaeli shows that you don’t have to be super-skinny to get a fat
Rafaeli is due to make her Super Bowl debut this year in a Go
The law, like the rest of us, is not perfect, but it’s
helping to shape a healthier society.
Personally, I hope that having
helped to save the lives of models, the next Knesset will pass the law banning
the trade in furs. No woman, whatever her size, looks good wearing a coat so
expensive that it cost an animal its life.