Real Israel: Role Models

A new law helps the country’s models keep things in healthy proportion.

Fashion model 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Fashion model 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
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 Adi Barkan.
Fashion photographer Barkan runs SIMPLY U, one of the country’s most successful modeling agencies, under the slogan “Returning to the healthy look.”
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 hospital.
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 born.”
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 industry.
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.”
While the 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 eating disorders.
“The time has come to think about ourselves and our children and take responsibility for what we show them. Too thin is not sexy.”
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 education.
“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 dead.
“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.
When 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 it.
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 successful.”
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.
“I’m 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 contract.
Rafaeli is due to make her Super Bowl debut this year in a Go Daddy commercial.
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