- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 21, 2012

JERUSALEM — Told she was too fat to be a model, Danielle Segal shed a quarter of her weight and was hospitalized twice for malnutrition. Now that a new Israeli law prohibits the employment of underweight models, the 19-year-old must gain some of the weight back if she wants to work again.

Not that she ever was overweight. At 5 feet 7 inches tall, she weighed 116 pounds to begin with. Feeling pressure to become ever thinner, she dropped another 29 pounds. The unnaturally skeletal girl weighed 88 pounds by then, or about as much as a robust preteen, and her health suffered.

The legislation passed Monday aims to put a stop to the extremes and, by extension, ease the pressure on youngsters to emulate the skin-and-bones models, often resulting in dangerous eating disorders.

The new law poses a groundbreaking challenge to a fashion industry widely castigated for promoting anorexia and bulimia. Its sponsors say it could become an example for other countries grappling with the spread of the life-threatening disorders.

It’s especially important in Israel, where models’ every utterance and dalliance is fodder for large pictures and racy stories in the nation’s newspapers. Supermodel Bar Refaeli is considered a national hero by many. She is not unnaturally thin.

The new law requires models to produce a medical report no older than three months at every shoot for the Israeli market, stating that they are not malnourished by World Health Organization standards.

The U.N. agency relies on the body mass index, calculated by factors of weight and height. WHO says a body mass index below 18.5 indicates malnutrition. According to that standard, a woman 5 feet 8 inches tall should weigh no less than 119 pounds.

Also, any advertisement published for the Israeli market must have a clearly written notice disclosing if its models were made to look thinner by digital manipulation. The law does not apply to foreign publications sold in Israel.

In Israel, about 2 percent of girls ages 14 to 18 have severe eating disorders, a rate similar to other developed countries, specialists said.

The law’s supporters hope it will encourage the use of healthy models in local advertising and heighten awareness of digital tricks that transform already skinny women into waifs.

“We want to break the illusion that the model we see is real,” said Liad Gil-Har, assistant to Dr. Rachel Adato, the law’s sponsor who compared the battle against eating disorders to the struggle against smoking.

The law won support from a surprising quarter: one of Israel’s top model agents, Adi Barkan, who said in 30 years of work, he has seen young women become skinnier and sicker while struggling to fit the shrinking mold of what the industry considers attractive.

“They look like dead girls,” Mr. Barkan said.

New model of beauty

Miss Segal says she’s thrilled with the new law and wishes it had been passed years ago.

“I wouldn’t have grown up thinking that [being underweight] is a model of beauty. I wouldn’t have reached the point I reached,” she said.

Miss Segal said an agent told her three years ago that she had a beautiful face — but not a “model’s body.” Trying to attain that ideal through drastic diets, she ended up in the hospital twice and stopped menstruating.

Miss Segal said she met Mr. Barkan during her modeling work, and he convinced her she could succeed as a model without being unnaturally thin. She now weighs about 110 pounds and would have to gain almost eight more pounds to qualify for work.

Mr. Barkan estimated about half the 300 professional models in Israel would have to gain weight to work again.

Top Israeli model Adi Neumman said she wouldn’t pass under the new rules, because her BMI is 18.3. Miss Neumman said she eats well and exercises. “Make girls go to a doctor. Get a system to follow girls who are found to be puking,” a symptom of bulimia, she said.

Critics say the legislation should have focused on health, not weight, arguing that many models are naturally thin.

“The health of the model … should be evaluated. Our weight can change hour to hour,” said Dr. David Herzog, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who specializes in eating disorders.

Bowing to pressure

Pressure on the fashion industry has intensified in recent years, sparked by the deaths of models in Brazil and Uruguay from medical complications linked to eating disorders.

Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos, 22, collapsed and died soon after stepping off the runway in August 2006, reportedly of anorexia-linked heart failure.

Other governments have taken steps to prevent “size zero” medical problems but have shied away from legislation.

The Madrid fashion show bans women whose BMI is below 18. Milan’s fashion week bans models with a BMI below 18.5.

Britain and the U.S. have guidelines, but their fashion industry is self-regulated.

Unrealistic body images in the media are believed to shape eating habits, especially among young people, though there is debate about how influential they are. Other factors include psychological health, trauma such as sexual assault, or a tendency within one’s family to emphasize physical appearance as a sign of success.

It’s not certain that the Israeli law will have a measurable impact, because teens there take their cues from international media and local publications, said Sigal Gooldin, an eating disorder specialist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Social worker Uri Pinus, who treats seven teens with eating disorders at a Jerusalem hospital, said the law is unlikely to affect his patients.

“But our expectation is that this law will impact the wider public,” Mr. Pinus said. “[It] will reduce pressure on the girls to lose weight.”

Miss Segal said putting weight back on would be a challenge. But, she said, “in the end it’s a very low price to pay when I think about other girls who won’t grow up sick in the future.”

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