Monday, July 25, 2005
Legislating Beauty 
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Lauren at Feministe reports that Israel is considering outlawing the employment of fashion models with eating disorders in that country:
"This Sunday, a committee of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, will decide whether to proceed with a bill to compel model agencies to monitor the health and body mass index (the ratio of height to weight) of models. Models would have to undergo regular medical tests to ensure their body mass index (BMI) is 19 or above. The most serious anorexics can have a BMI as low as seven.

If the Knesset passes the bill, [Israeli photographer and model agent Adi] Barkan hopes the effect will be two-fold. First, agencies will be forced to confront a problem they have for long ignored and, second, only "healthy" models will be seen on television, in magazines and on billboards. [keep reading in Guardian UK]
This news is interesting on a number of levels, especially considering the Dove "Real Beauty" ad campaign kerfuffle of late, and the "chicken or egg" question of how super-skinny models became the look du jour in the first place. Did anorexic models become a fashion standard because they represent a more extreme 'eye-catching' version of attractively slender "normal" women, or are women seeking to look like anorexic models because the starved look was spun from whole cloth by the fashion industry - and if so, why? Chicago Tribune staffer Mary Jenkins writes (facetiously, I hope),
See, ads should be about the beautiful people. They should include the unrealistic, the ideal or the unattainable look for which so many people strive. That's why models make so much money. They are freaks -- human anomalies -- who need to be paid to get photographed so we can gawk at them.

I see "real people" all the time. I don't need "real people" to sell me things. I'm a "real person" and I don't want to see me on the side of a bus -- and trust me, in my underwear neither do you.
Don't get me wrong; regardless of whether you like the look of anorexic models (I don't) or believe that this standard of beauty is detrimental to women in general (I do), in our global economy Israel's ban would only drive models with eating disorders and Israel's modeling industry elsewhere. Consider how America's restrictions on stem-cell research - another contentious issue - have impacted that industry. Our laws have done little or nothing to stop stem-cell research; outside the U.S., work on embryonic cells proceeds at an unabated clip in many nations, and the industry and investment money follows. Photographer Barkan writes,
"I reckon that around 30% of models are genetically thin. A few of the rest are reducing their weight through exercise and good diet, but most of the others are reducing their weight artificially by bulimia and drugs," he says, as we sit in a Tel Aviv cafe.

It is easy to cover up the blemishes caused by a poor diet and drug abuse with makeup and image-enhancing software, but after four years, a 24-year old might look 10 years older than she really is, says Barkan. He interrupts to point to a woman walking outside. "Look at how thin she is. She's an Israeli girl, not a Russian girl. [Twenty per cent of Israel's population are of Russian descent.] That's not healthy," he says.

He admits that anorexia can have a multitude of causes but is convinced that the fashion industry can have a major effect on it. "I think 50% of the problem can be dealt with by us. If the fashion stores, food companies and other consumers of model services refuse to employ unhealthy women, that will remove one part of the motivation to reduce weight."
On the one hand, I like to think Israel is making a humane statement by sanctioning the unhealthy practice of models' starving themselves for their work - in the same way that some nations prohibit other dangerous work practices. On the other hand, you'll likely never see coal-dust-blackened faces peering from the pages of Vogue as a standard of beauty.

What's intriguing is that historically, higher weight was considered attractive and desirable for women (and adult men and children), as low body weight often indicated malnutrition or disease - conditions undesirable for fertility and childbearing. It is only in fairly recent human history (now that under-nutrition and many diseases are no longer the problem they were) "fashionable weights" for women have fluctuated wildly, with curvy voluptousness a standard in some decades, pre-pubescent slimness in others - consider the "Flapper Era," supermodel Twiggy in the 1960's, and most recently the "heroin chic" look. However, the "fatter is better" sentiment also sometimes took unhealthy extremes, with 19th Century patent medicines once purporting to make babies "fat and healthy as pigs."

Interestingly, all of the above trends (with the exception of the tight-corset era, where "wasp-sized" waists served to accentuate the hourglass silhouette of large bosoms and hips) the current vogue of large augmented breasts (and lips, to some extent) paired with super-skinny hips and waists has only become desirable or possible in the age of weight-loss drugs and plastic surgery; in nature, the two states (a "starved" body with "obese" breasts) rarely if ever co-exist. Perhaps what we're collectively losing touch with most is our sense of reality; but if so, it likely isn't restricted solely to the realm of beauty.