Who decides what is sexy? The interesting thing about the fashion industry is that there is no simple answer. Fashion designers would love to say “I decide what is sexy,” but that’s like giving a teacher all the credit for a student’s success. As the late American costume designer Edith Head once said, “A designer is only as good as the star who wears her clothes.” So no matter how beautiful an article of clothing is, it won’t matter unless someone wears it. What designers make depends on what people wear, and what people wear depends on what is being made. This cyclical interaction makes it hard for experts to predict what will be popular, making most people feel unqualified to make predictions. However, when it comes to the models themselves, everyone has an opinion on what is sexy. Since models are getting skinnier, it is distorting the ideal of beauty into an unrealistic and unhealthy image for many young girls. The only way to break the spell of shrinking models and a dangerous image of beauty is by doing what Israel has just started doing: Restricting overly-skinny models from modelling.
Beauty Changes in the Fashion Industry
The fashion industry is amazing. For those on the outside, it may seem like the only rule of advertising is “sex sells.” For those on the inside, it’s a complex network of art and innovation, history and imagination. The 18th century American poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau once noted that every generation “laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.” I never used to think about fashion myself, but learning about various cultures and traveling around the world made fashion interesting and, dare I say, relevant.
The cultural changes involved with fashion happen gradually. The beauties of generations ago would never make it in today’s fashion world, but today’s models would likewise never have been accepted into the fashion world of generations earlier. They probably would have been told they’re too skinny.
The models becoming skinnier and outfits getting tinier was therefore a gradual change. The more decades go by with the attitude that extremely slim models are “normal,” or that “every model has to be like that in order to compete,” the more people begin to believe that this is the height of beauty. And since we are in the “Photoshop Era” of mass marketing, these ideals are generally unnatainable.
Not everyone buys into this, though. Despite the expected backlash from designers, agencies, and models themselves, there is a vocal island of opposition in the sea of impossible expectations that are actually gaining momentum.
Madrid Sets the Tone: No Means No
The world’s first ban on excessively thin models was at Madrid ’s 2006 fashion week, one of the biggest fashion events of the year. While the battle against the fashion industry has been raging for years, this was one of the first steps in what I consider to be the right direction.
The director of the fashion show, Leonor Perez Pita, said that it’s important that they promote a healthy image, and so restricted models based on Body Mass Index (BMI). BMI is a calculation based on height and weight, and the restriction made 30% of their models ineligible to participate in 2005. The restriction was strictly enforced, and medics were there to measure them. This was a no-nonsense ban on unhealthy images.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the minimum weight to be considered healthy is a BMI of 18, and the models of the Madrid Fashion Week must at least that high. In 2008, after its third year, only one of 45 models were turned away, and the bigger (i.e., normal) models are becoming slightly more prevalent on the European catwalks.
However, many people believe that a BMI of 18 is still too thin. And if we want to deter models from becomming too thin, restricting them from one or two events out of the year may not be good enough.
But Israel has taken it a step further.
Israel is Serious About Beauty and Health
A relatively strict (for models, that is) new bill in Israel passed a few weeks ago which may be the first major change to influence the industry. It says that models (of either sex) must have a BMI of no less than 18.5, or a note from a doctor saying they’re not underweight, before they can be legally accepted for a new modeling job. That means appearing in an advertisement or on the runway. Whether or not the BMI is the right way to measure who is underweight is debatable, but that’s really just the beginning.
Models who even “look underweight” are not allowed to be shown in advertisements now. Perhaps the subjectivity of what it means to “look underweight” will be debated, but I doubt that magazines will want to test the law and its limitations. Adi Barkan, a major modeling agent in Israel who helped make the law, said that the ultra-thin models of recent years “look like dead girls.” Barkan says that around half of the 300 of the country’s models will have to gain weight in order to work.
One last provision I think is just brilliant is that advertisers must disclose whether the photos they used in an advertisement are digitally manipulated to make the models look skinnier, such as with Photoshop. However, this law does not apply to foreign publications released in Israel.
“Beautiful is not underweight,” says Rachel Adato, who voted for the new bill, now known colloquially “Photoshop Law.” Lawmakers like Adato are hoping to make Israeli youth have a more healthy body image. According to a recent study, 2% of Israeli girls aged 14 to 18 have eating disorders.
I don’t think we can say that images of modeling simply causes eating disorders, considering lots of people see advertisements without starting unhealthy eating habits. But I do believe that advertisements are a major contributing factor, and they certainly must be taken seriously. The only way for girls to grow up with more healthy role models and fashion idols is to make sure that they are available. This is why the progress made in the Phillipines and Israel is so productive.
If more countries enforce strict regulations on modelling, the image of beauty in the industry might culturally shift from a female stick-figure with barely anything on, to a regular, beautiful, full-figured woman.
…With barely anything on.
Come on, let’s be realistic.