Last week, Israel passed a long-debated bill that would ban extremely thin models from being used on runways and in photo shoots. The law states that models must have a body-mass index (BMI) of 18.5 or more — for example, a model who is five foot eight must weigh at least 119 pounds. For context, supermodel Kate Moss, who helped popularize the “heroin chic” look of the early ‘90s, is five foot seven and reportedly weighs about 114 pounds. Israel’s own Bar Refaeli, who has a curvier bikini-model figure, is five foot eight and reportedly weighs in the 125 to 130 pound range.
Many feminists are hailing Israel’s law as a huge step forward for the fashion industry. However, I’m not one of them.
Most of the other laws or public agreements aimed to combat the overuse of extremely young or thin models have not worked. Last year, Vogue magazine vowed that it would not use any models under the age of 16 in any of its editions around the world, but they’ve broken their own rule multiple times since then. American designer Marc Jacobs has also violated rules about paying models for their time and was caught paying some models ‘in trade’ (aka free clothes) and not following labor laws, but he has not been sanctioned in any way by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). Perhaps that’s because he is a board member? Spain passed a similar BMI-based law in 2006, and Australia wrote its own legislation in 2010. But Spain, Australia and Israel are all second-tier fashion countries when it comes to worldwide attention and corporate dollars. In order to make real structural changes, the four fashion capitals of the world — Paris, Milan, London, and New York — will have to step up. Simply passing laws about models will not change the real, underlying issues of body image, health and labor exploitation.
Israel can point to one indisputably successful international export, which so far, no one has shown any interest in boycotting: drop-dead gorgeous models.
Sports Illustrated bikini-wearing, DiCaprio-dating Bar Rafaeli may be the current the leader of the pack, but she is part of a long and glorious tradition, following in the high-heeled footsteps of those who went before her like Shiraz Tal and Michaela Bercu, who conquered and occupied the covers of fashion magazines and billboard before her.
The unrealistically slender proportions of fashion models often further reduced by photographic touch-ups, the international culture of fashion and music videos and the simple fact that Israel is a coastal bathing-suit wearing culture means that at any given moment, most of the female population here is on a diet. Like the rest of the world, body-consciousness develops at an alarmingly young age and eating disorders are a growing problem among Israeli youth, just as they are worldwide.