Health Is Beauty

The Eating Disorder Epidemic: Why Israel's Ban of Underweight Models is Important

tel-aviv_AP
Oded Balilty, AP. A man walks past an advertisement displayed on a main street in Tel Aviv, Israel.

I recovered from an eating disorder years ago. It was once a secret kept safely within the confines of close family members and dear friends. I was ashamed of my struggle, concerned I’d be judged, and it wasn’t something I had any interest in broadcasting.

My eating disorder was an obsession with control which took over my life. The more fixated I became on my idea of perfection, the more out of control my world spiraled. I was after an unattainable ideal, and I was never quite good enough. My zeal for life faded, relationships suffered, and my body and everything around me broke down. I was incapable at that time of truly giving to others or putting my best out into the world because I was so disrespectful to myself — and I didn’t love who I was.

All of the chaos I created in my own head went on and on, until one day I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. With support from those around me, I stopped my behavior in one single day, changed my world, and I began to do the work that needed to be done to heal my mind and soul.

Call me crazy, but I’m now grateful for the struggle. I no longer take my good health for granted. It’s made me a much more empathetic person, and it inspired new visions and goals for my life. I choose to speak openly about my eating disorder, unashamed, because I hope it inspires someone else to do the same.  Believe it or not, eating disorders are much more prevalent than most think.

As many as 10 million females and 1 million males in the U.S. battle anorexia or bulimia, and as many as 13 million more struggle with binge-eating disorder. Millions practice disordered eating due to an obsession with dieting. Four out of 10 Americans either suffered or have known someone who has suffered from an eating disorder.

I’ve never blamed anything or anyone for my eating disorder, but I do believe the images of skeletal women whose beauty was celebrated in magazines and on TV certainly never helped me.

That’s why I was ecstatic to hear that the Israeli government passed legislation aimed to stop portraying skin-and-bones models as the ideal of beauty in their country.  The new legislation bans the use of photographs of underweight models in advertising on billboards, in TV commercials and newspaper ads, etc. The law also requires that any advertisement in which use has been made of a graphic editing program to reduce the size of the models must clearly disclose this fact. These conditions also apply to advertisements using foreign models that have been edited abroad and imported into Israel.

Models must now 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. World Health Organization says a body mass index below 18.5 indicates malnutrition.

One problem people have with this new law is that BMI is not always an accurate way to measure health. But let’s be real here — most of the time, it is.

Commented Dr. Rachel Adatto, Chair of the Health Lobby at the Knesset and initiator of the bill:

“This law will erase the anorexic image of beauty transmitted by the media, the fashion industry and advertising, and will help protect the health of Israeli youth. The law will change the current situation where underweight male and female fashion models represent the ideal for children and youth and so, in effect, push them towards the terrible curse of eating disorders that attack not only the mind but the body. With this law, we are bringing the ideals of beauty back within the limits of logic, of health, within reasonable limits that will prevent our children sliding down the slippery slope into eating disorders. This law sends a message to our young people that thinness may be popular but that there is a limit, and it is possible to be too thin.”

I’m not so naive as to think Israel’s new legislation will solve their eating disorder crisis overnight, or any other country who chooses to adopt similar legislation, for that matter. There are many factors which can contribute to an eating disorder, such as genes, environment and stresses. But, I firmly believe that healthier-looking images of men and women in the media will make a huge difference. According to NEDA, idealized media images and “body perfect” ideals directly increase body dissatisfaction and negatively impact well-being among women and men—but have a particularly negative affect on adolescent girls.

Having recovered from an eating disorder, I can comfortably say that I do believe that there’s a stigma attached to eating disorders. People don’t understand them; they simply think that eating disorders are trivial, reserved for vain young girls who choose to punish themselves because they’re obsessed with being thin. This kind of misperception is damaging.

Eating disorders are biologically based mental illnesses, and they have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, including depression, schizophrenia, and alcoholism. The longer an eating disorder persists, the more damage is done to the body and mind. And you can’t always tell someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them. Globally, millions of women and men of every race, class, age, culture and size suffer from eating disorders.

And yet, in most regions of the world, private health insurance and government funding for treatment are not adequate to support the care required to cure these illnesses. Only 1 in 10 people with eating disorders receive treatment, and only 35 percent of people that receive treatment for eating disorders get treatment at a specialized facility for eating disorders.

The truth about eating disorders is far more serious and complex than most realize. The Israeli Parliament deserves praise for taking preventative measures against eating disorders. My hope is that Israel’s new legislation becomes an example for countries around the world, whose citizens contend with these life-threatening disorders.

Now we’ll see if U.S. Congress responds.

Like this post? Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @LindsEBrown

Lindsay has spent her career at the intersection of media and social change. In her role at Eco-Chick, Lindsay has established partnerships and campaigns with some of the world’s most-recognized companies committed to sustainability and CSR. She co-created the popular interview series “Heroines for the Planet” that features groundbreaking women who share courage and a deep passion for protecting people and the Earth. Lindsay is the Marketing and Sustainability Manager at Health-Ade Kombucha and previously served as Director of Communications at the social enterprise CBS EcoMedia. There she directed corporate advertising dollars to the nation’s most effective non-profits tackling urgent social issues in local communities and was awarded CBS Corporation’s prestigious Share-the-Vision award. She has written for Whole Living Magazine, Edible, Cottages & Gardens, From The Grapevine, EarthHour.org, Eco-Age.com, and for environmentalists Laura Turner Seydel and Susan Rockefeller. Lindsay holds a BS in Global Business Studies and Marketing from Manhattan College, and received the 2012 Honors Award at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.