A new law took effect in Israel on January 1st , a law that pits commitment to freedom of expression against the commitment to protect people from the physical and psychological dangers of being too thin or attempting to be so. The law requires that models must maintain a Body Mass Index (BMI) of no less than 18.5. Put in context, a 5’8” model weighing 120 pounds would have a BMI of 18.2.
The law, which is sometimes called the “Photoshop Law”, also bans digitally manipulating images to portray people with BMI’s lower than 18.5, unless the images are accompanied by a text which explains the artificiality of the person portrayed.
It’s probably no accident that this law was passed in Israel. Israel is a small country with a population of slightly over 7 million people living in an area roughly the size of New Jersey. In that small area, there are many people for whom the memory, let alone the ongoing effects, of starvation are very real, and the concern about exploiting hunger as a path to material success, particularly acute.
Israel is home to almost 200,000 Holocaust survivors, tens of thousands of refugees from Ethiopia, and hundreds of thousands of others who have come to Israel by way of places in which malnutrition and its related problems were a regular facet of daily life. Their journey to Israel, both in their minds and in the collective mind of the larger Israeli public, is not simply about their physical movement from one location or circumstance to another. It is about coming home to a place of greater safety and dignity. It is about coming home to a place which protects people from being dangerously underweight, and by extension from glamorizing that circumstance.
To be sure, one could rightly argue that choosing to be underweight is not the same as it being forced upon you. That said, presuming that the choice to be dangerously thin, to have an eating disorder, etc. is simply a free choice, is foolish.
When a culture incentivizes specific body images, and rewards those who attain them even when it is clearly unhealthy to do so, that culture must bear at least some measure of responsibility for the ill health, both physical and psychological which is created. In that sense, Israeli law-makers are to be congratulated for enacting this new law.
There are however, many good reasons to find this law objectionable. For starters, Israel, like the United States, deems freedom of expression an almost sacred right, and the test of a cultures commitment to freedom of expression lies in its commitment to defending the expression of precisely those ideas and images which are objectionable. That fact, combined with the reality that no society that values personal freedom can legislate away every possible opportunity to people to harm themselves, could make Israel’s approach the wrong way to go.
When one adds to that the fact that there are many factors which lead to people become underweight, or suffer from eating disorders -- many of them genetic or otherwise biological, it’s hard to defend the full force of the new law. But not defending the full force of the law does not mean Israeli legislators are not onto something and that perhaps there is a useful middle ground to be considered right here in the United States.
Perhaps we should begin to consider images of models with BMI’s under 18.5, or some other carefully determined cut off, to be like images of models engaged in sexually explicit behavior. Those images, as long as they do not present an immediate danger, such as cases of child pornography, are legally protected, but not allowed to circulate without additional restrictions. They are deemed less than fully appropriate for public consumption, especially by minors, and while we do not ban them, we create a measure so social disapproval about them.
I appreciate that pornography is a booming business, and that this suggestion may only push the problem into the darker corners of society. But this solution, or something like it, would at least begin to delineate a sense of social awareness about the often dangerously unrealistic images with which especially women and girls are inundated, not to mention the damage inflicted on at least some of those models who make the images.
The line between our commitment to individual freedom and our commitment to public health is a fine line to walk. The new law in Israel may not be the best way to walk it, but it reminds us that we could surely walk it better than we currently do.