Law against emaciated models daunts the gaunt

ETHICS @ WORK: The ethical considerations surrounding such a law are quite involved.

anorexia anorexic eating disorder skinny 390 (photo credit: iStockphoto)
anorexia anorexic eating disorder skinny 390
(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 weight.
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 overweight.
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 emaciated.
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 modeling.
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.
Another consideration 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 discouraging smoking.
• 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 legislation.
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 disorders.
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Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).