This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.
The Israeli Parliament’s move to ban skinny models from appearing in that nation’s media may be less momentous than its efforts to thwart Iran’s bid to build nuclear weapons. But to the Israeli politicians who sponsored the measure, which won approval in Tel Aviv on Monday, and to American experts on eating disorders, the measure is a clear step toward a key goal: promoting more realistic body images among girls and women.
Less clear is whether such a measure can drive down eating disorders, which are thought to afflict some 7 million American women and 1 million American men, and as many as 2% of Israeli girls ages 14 to 18.
The Israeli measure would ban the use of models on catwalks or in advertising destined for the Israeli market if they “look underweight” or if their body-mass index falls below 18.5 — the World Health Organization’s definition of underweight. If Israeli media outlets alter photographs to make models appear thinner, the measure requires them to disclose that fact.
A 6-foot model would need to weigh more than 136 pounds under the new measure. A model whose BMI falls below that would be required to have a note from a doctor certifying that she is not underweight before working in Israel.
Rachel Adato, the Israeli lawmaker who sponsored the bill, said this week that she hoped it would help to bring Israeli women’s and girls’ notions of beauty more in line with what is attainable, and thereby drive down eating disorders.
The idea that media depictions of women with unrealistically thin bodies may drive up rates of anorexia nervosa and bulimia is widely debated. But it got a strong push with the publication in 2002 of a study of Fijian girls that suggested that the introduction of television — and images of thin models — in the remote islands quickly drove up cases of eating disorders.
University of North Carolina eating disorders specialist Cynthia M. Bulik gave “unequivocal kudos” to the provision that requires media outlets to disclose their graphic alteration of women’s bodies, saying there are “no downsides” to letting girls and women know that these pictures “do not reflect real women’s bodies.”
“The visual effect is so powerful and such a dangerous lure for girls and women who feel like they have to match this societal thin ideal,” said Bulik, author of “The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like With Who You Are.”
Bulik cautioned, however, that using BMI to identify models with eating disorders is an imperfect strategy, since not all women who are underweight suffer from anorexia nervosa or bulimia, and not all who suffer from those eating disorders is underweight.
Columbia University psychiatrist B. Timothy Walsh, a leading expert on eating disorders, also praised the measure and predicted it will influence women’s and girls’ body images. He added that the measure may provide needed protections for models from unhealthy work conditions.
But Dr. Walsh said that while changing the shapes of models seen in magazines and on TV is a “constructive goal,” it may do little to reduce eating disorders among girls and women.
“There are so many things that appear to contribute to vulnerability to eating disorders — certain genes, the environment in which you live, the stresses of life, especially during adolescence, and the interaction among all these things,” said Walsh. While preventing eating disorders is a laudable goal, it’s a distant one, he said: Researchers know very little about what factors drive those with eating disorders and who will develop them.
At the same time, Walsh said that by “normalizing” media depictions of women’s bodies, “it’ll presumably reduce the pressure for girls and women to achieve unrealistically low weight and therefore to engage in unhealthy diets”
While that may not drive down eating disorders, said Walsh, “it should reduce disordered eating” — a pattern of eating that is unhealthful, if not pathological.
For the record, 5:50 p.m. March 22: This post originally identified Cynthia M. Bulik as an eating disorders specialist from Duke University.