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(photo credit: iStockphoto)
This week the Knesset passed a novel law that says advertising models have to
have a minimum weight. In particular, employers have to verify that the model
has a Body Mass Index of at least 18.5. (The law seems to apply to both men and
women, but the phenomenon of ultra-thin models seems to be limited to women, so
the column will refer specifically to them.)
There are two distinct concerns
motivating the law: One is for the models themselves. The preference advertisers
have for very thin models may compel aspiring models to choose between healthy
weight and finding work in modeling. The law is meant to enable any person who
wants to work as a model to maintain a healthy weight and not endanger her
health by being undernourished or by taking dangerous drugs to reduce
Another concern is for the population as a whole, particularly
the female population. Recent decades have seen a marked increase in eating
disorders, including anorexia nervosa in which the victims, usually girls or
young women, subject themselves to starvation diets that provide inadequate
calories and nutrients, while being convinced that they are quite
One theory is that this increase is connected to a cultural
idea of extreme thinness and that the prevalence of ultra-thin models helps
popularize this ideal. The law is meant to cultivate a healthier ideal of
feminine beauty not correlated with being emaciated.
This second concern
is evident in the provision of the law that states that if the advertisement is
edited to make the model appear thinner than permitted, it must prominently
state this fact. This provision is not needed to protect the models, but it
helps convince the audience that society’s exemplars of beauty are not
The ethical considerations surrounding such a law are quite
involved. One reason for opposing it is that it is intrusive and superfluous.
Many professions are dangerous; it is true that a number of models have died
from anorexia, but it is equally true that loggers suffer an even greater rate
of fatality. No one is obligated to work as a model, just as no one is obligated
to work as a logger; the employees are generally mature individuals who can make
decisions for themselves.
It is questionable for the Knesset to intervene
in broad social questions such as exactly what constitutes the ideal of beauty.
And there are already general laws governing workplace safety, so we may
question the need for having a special law specifically for the profession of
Furthermore, idealizing thinness may have its positive aspects
in a society in which being overweight is blamed for a growing swathe of medical
problems, including hypertension, heart disease and so on.
On the other
hand, there are also cogent ethical considerations in favor of such a law. Many
models are quite young, and lawmakers may feel they lack true informed consent.
Another consideration is that perhaps the trend toward thinness is not because
of any inherent feeling that thin is beautiful but because competitiveness leads
agencies to display models who are “the most.”
Obviously they want models
who are “the most” beautiful, but that is so subjective that they might just be
looking for another way to distinguish themselves.
If the thinness of
models is just the consequence of such a “race to the bottom,” then putting an
end to this ruinous competition has no real cost.
is the natural advantage concentrated and commercial interests have in our
society. For example:
• A few relatively small companies have an interest in
promoting smoking, whereas a very large number of highly dispersed individuals
have an interest in discouraging it. No one is making money from having people
not smoke and the opposition is diffuse, so there are few advertisements
• A few relatively small companies have an interest
in having us eat junk food, but the growers of vegetables and fruits are many
and dispersed. So there are many ads encouraging us to eat rich snacks but few
encouraging us to eat fresh fruits and vegetables.
Likewise, a few
modeling agencies may have a vital commercial interest in promoting an ideal of
feminine beauty that is inaccessible and which they control, whereas the people
interested in promoting a more healthy and natural idea may be dispersed and
lack any monetary benefit.
Normally these imbalances are considered
comparatively harmless and governments don’t bother to get involved, but
sometimes they do. For example, in most countries tobacco products are required
to carry warnings, while fruit and vegetable growers often are encouraged to
form trade groups that might otherwise fall foul of antitrust
The coming years may give us an idea if the Knesset
legislation has any negative impact on the modeling industry or any positive
impact on the prevalence of eating email@example.com
Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an
independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).
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