Lawmakers in Israel yesterday passed a law banning the use of ‘underweight’ models on catwalks or in commercials. Women and men seeking modeling jobs would have to be certified by a doctor as having a body mass index of no less than 18.5. I sympathize with the lawmaker’s intent, which is to reduce eating disorders and promote healthy body image. But measures like this are too invasive for my liking. And BMI is a bad measure for determining body size or overall health.
A normal BMI is one in the 18.5-24.9 range; over 30 is considered obese; 25-29.9 is overweight; and under 18.5 is considered underweight.
That means someone with my measurements—5’5″ and 110 lbs—would technically be underweight, even though I’m healthy and look healthy and am by no means startlingly skinny. Body frame and the way you carry weight matters. Whether you’re thin from eating right (and genetics) or from starving yourself matters. And BMI is not a good proxy for health, at either end of the spectrum (except at the extremes). Richard Bergman, director of Cedars-Sinai’s Diabetes and Obesity Research Institute, told New Scientist last year that:
The BMI has been around since the 1840s, but it has a number of weaknesses. Firstly, it doesn’t give a real estimate of percentage body fat. Secondly, the BMI can be quite different for a man and a woman with the same percentage of body fat. And thirdly, your BMI can be high even if you don’t have much fat, especially if you are male and very muscular.
Rachel Adato, one of the lawmakers who pushed the Israeli bill, said she hoped the law would protect youth from unattainable beauty standards.
“Beautiful is not underweight, beautiful should not be anorexic,” she said.
Which—fine. Right. Great. But having a BMI under 18.5 does not necessarily mean anorexic. And though beautiful shouldn’t have to mean underweight, it’s dumb to say people underweight can’t be beautiful. The problem is idealizing any one beauty standard. The problem is women feeling their worth is tied to their body size. The problem is not all models falling below an arbitrary weight- to height ratio.
The Israeli law also bans models who “appear underweight,” which seems like a much better (and yet less enforceable) standard. And it would require advertisers to explicitly state if photos were manipulated to make a model look thinner.
Italy and India have both banned underweight models from the catwalk in recent years, and I suspect we’ll see more countries following suit—including, perhaps, our own. Though I hope not. It just seems like a showy legislative attempt at promoting body positivity or healthy eating that will end up burdening models and the industry but barely scratch the surface of any real issues.
Photo: Rui M Leal/WENN.com