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The UK needs to pass a law against super-skinny models — a law student and model explains why

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If looks could kill

A person cannot go a day without being bombarded with adverts and images of unrealistically retouched ‘perfection’. The modelling industry’s depiction of ‘beauty’ as unhealthily thin and Photoshopped positions men and women problematically as passive victims of the media and its messages, as opposed to allowing them to be informed and critical consumers. Researchers have demonstrated that the rapid incline in the onset of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia in recent years is, in part, due to a supreme pressure to attain the media’s portrayal of the ‘idealistic thin body’. It is evident that a positive body image is a defiant act in this society which is seemingly structured to feed off our insecurities.

Eating disorders currently have the highest mortality rate out of any mental illness. Once one delves into the dark world of anorexics and bulimics it becomes apparent that it is imperative for the UK to follow in the steps of Israel and France and put in place strong legislation to prevent psychological harm, especially to vulnerable young men and women.

There really is no time to waste — girls and boys are obsessively dieting to death. Research by Anne Becker showed eating disorders increased by 15% once western TV was introduced into Fiji, despite the centrality of food in Fijian culture. Becker illustrated this rapid transformation of ideology through quotes by the girls who were affected: “I want their body” and “I want their size”, for example. Mental health has been overlooked by society and the law for too long, it is time for a change.

When the then Labour government conducted a summit on body image in June 2000, the damaging effects of extremely thin runway and advertisement models being broadcasted as the ‘norm’ were discussed. It was understood that something must be done to widen the variety of body images and sizes being broadcasted to the country.

Nearly two decades later and despite the increasing mortality rates, there is no clear legislation to protect delicately malleable young minds from exposure to these unlifelike images. The law on excessive Photoshop and unhealthily thin models in the UK is illogical and lacks clear expression.

In the UK, under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, it is illegal to include deceptive messages in advertisements. The regulations impose a general ban on conduct which is not in ‘good faith’. The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing supplements this law and it fills gaps where the law’s incapable of reaching.

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The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is responsible for making decisions on this code. It has ruled, for example, that a particular image of a Gucci model featured in The Times made her look “gaunt”. They decided that the image was “irresponsible”. Furthermore, the ASA banned an image of an 18-year-old Dutch model, Kiki Willems, because, for example, the model’s rib cage was unhealthily visible,. The ASA has also banned an ad for clothing brand Drop Dead for using a model who appeared underweight.

However because this code is not sufficiently binding, it is easily disregarded and many individuals choose to turn a blind eye to it. Mia Freedman, the former chair of the National Body Image Advisory Group, has expressed how non-mandatory codes like this one are given a “fashionable middle finger”, as very few model agents or brands truly take it into consideration. If they cannot see the direct legal repercussions of their behaviour they can choose to undermine the code and shun morality. So, despite the progress the ASA has made in eliminating highly unhealthy and unrealistic depictions of beauty from the modelling and advertisement industry, the progress is limited and countless ads go unnoticed. The value of self-regulation as an alternative to statutory control is ignorantly indolent.

The Liberal Democrats hoped to impose stricter regulations on the use of Photoshop, Jo Swinson MP having previously described airbrushed images as ones which “no one can live up to in real life”. The party aimed to introduce a new policy which would order all airbrushed images to be accompanied with terms describing what enhancements had been made.

But is this topic a priority for the political arena?

Perhaps the real question is when is mental health ever a priority in the political arena? It appears that humans are more predisposed to react to tangible stimuli, stimuli which they can see with their eyes.

This proposed reform would have been a big step aimed at taking mental health more seriously and, most importantly, showing victims and their families that their situations are not being overlooked.

So while the ASA has come a long way in fighting for the removal of irresponsible images, it is time for a legislative intervention. With the help of legislation, the interpretation of what is deemed ‘irresponsible’ could be widened, which would hopefully lead to only healthy models being broadcasted as the norm. People should not have to aspire to looking like body shapes and sizes which are simply unattainable or unhealthy.

Looking at the examples set by other countries, Israel has acknowledged that many people struggle with poor body image and eating disorders due to a promotion of an “unhealthily thin idealistic body”. Known as the Photoshop law, Israel’s Act Limiting Weight in the Modelling Industry came into effect in 2013. The law means that all models in Israel have to have a BMI (body mass index) of 18.5 or higher. The index measures your height and weight to work out if you’re within a healthy range.

Furthermore the epicentre of fashion, France, has passed legislation which requires models to have a doctor’s certificate confirming they’re sufficiently healthy to walk the runway. The law in France also requires images altered by Photoshop to state so clearly.

It seems other countries are also slowly beginning to follow. A fashion show in Madrid, Spain, banned the use of very thin models. Madrid’s regional government (which imposed the restrictions) stated that the fashion industry has a responsibility to help improve the body image of its population.

So what’s stopping the UK? We need to pass a law which would require every model to have regular health checks in order to confirm that they’re fit to work. Furthermore, excessive Photoshop in advertising should be clearly indicated and consumers should be aware of the enhancements. This would mean that images of a ‘healthy body’ would very soon be dispersed throughout advertisements, magazines and model runways ensuring improved psychological wellbeing for all. Parliament has a fundamental role in protecting the people and the legislation must be passed to combat this escalating issue.

Julia Babiarz is a model and second year law student at the University of Manchester who is becoming increasingly concerned with the modelling industry and its use of unhealthily thin models.

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Please bear in mind that the authors of many Legal Cheek Journal pieces are at the beginning of their career. We'd be grateful if you could keep your comments constructive.

28 Comments

Not Amused

“So what’s stopping the UK?”

The current law seems to be working. There is a balance to be struck here and there’s nothing to suggest the balance is not currently in the right place.

Marge

ARRGH!!!!!!

A SKELETON!!!!!!

@nighthawkprof

there’s a “market” for everything these days

like in the older times

please try not to discriminate — this is a way for people to have gainful employment — and for others to gain er “something else” from

“gains” all around — see?

Tired

But what about the models/people who are naturally very thin? Setting a minimum BMI as a potential measure would do nothing to account for that

Cliff

🎼It’s a walking talking squeaking squawking LIVING CORPSE!🎶

Anonymous

100% agree

Kieran

You cannot procure “informed and critical” consumers by censoring certain women from advertisements. On this logic, ought we to ban overweight women from advertisements for setting unhealthy body standards? Such a law would not be progressive, but the opposite. Surely, in order to achieve a society of conscientious consumers, proper education on BMI and diet are required. After all, it is not the advertisers that tell people what they want. They cater for demand, and make their money by satisfying it. An advertisement with a particularly thin woman is not saying “you should be like this”, but is saying “if you buy our product, you’ll look as good as this”. It is the long history of humans believing in ‘the thinner the better’ (dating far beyond the wearing of corsets in the 16th century) which has causal effect on advertisements, not the other way around.

Anonymous

Completely agree, the toxic effects of poor body image are not to be taken as lightly as they are!

Almeerah

ought we to ban overweight women from advertisements for setting unhealthy body standards? NO the whole point is that there are no overweight women in the media there is only extra-thin

Kieran

Well I don’t think either should be banned. Someone very close to me is certainly underweight, and has tried supplements that increase her appetite to gain weight which hasn’t worked. Why should she be banned from modelling for something she cannot change? The law has its roots in objectivity and fairness. You cannot legislate against certain types of people for being underweight without legislating against the overweight. Moreover to this point, if you were to set a BMI benchmark for the ‘ideal’ distribution of fat, are you not causing the problem that you seek to solve? Is setting a legal standard of what is acceptable not worse than a business trying to sell their lingerie with a size 4 model?

FATTY BUMSTEAD

I’M NOT RETAINING FLUID, I’M
RETAINING CHIPS!!!!

- A

Personally I think that you’re getting too caught up with the BMI point, the article as a whole served to highlight the link between body image and mental health, the point on BMI was simply an example of what has been implemented elsewhere. The article calls for new legislation aimed towards improving the standards of health for models but doesn’t specify that we should adopt this particular approach directly or indirectly.

Anonymous

This is a clichè argument. The problem is that overweight people usually become overweight because of their unhealthy living standards or genetics. Anorexics, however, are psychologically forced by certain groups in the society such as: media, clothing industry and pharmaceutical companies to look certain way in order to be accepted.

Anonymous

I am not sure that I agree.

I find a flat stomach rather attractive. A bit of rib is fine, but not much. It is difficult to get a perfectly flat stomach without a bit of visible rib. For me it is a happy trade-off.

Anonymous

I’m with you there. My wife has a nice flat stomach and if she were to grow a belly it would degrade her physical appeal. I would accept it, but I would not necessarily be happy. Likewise, if I lost my pot belly, she would not be happy. I think the key is that (1) you should be happy with your own body, and (2) you should only compromise that, perhaps a little, for the happiness of your SO.

Mental Health Rights

Missing the point entirely! Your satisfaction with your wife’s belly has no place in an article regarding eating disorders

Anonymous

According to you your wife would care about your happiness, therefore, she would be afraid to gain some belly weight. Seems like a healthy relationship packed with mental abuse.

The voice of reason

I look forward to the banning of overweight/obese models on a similar basis.

Clearly it cannot be healthy or sensible to promote being overweight or obese as an acceptable lifestyle. The health implications for being even moderately overweight are such that no overweight model should be permitted.

Kieran

I think it is up to your doctor, not Parliament, to tell you how healthy you should be.

Marjorie Dawes

FATTIST!!!!!

Off now to have a bit o’ dust!

Anonymous

You’ve clearly missed the point of the article entirely

Anonymous

The voice of bullshit. You need to find a difference between natural eating dissorders and those forced by the society. Anorexia and obesity are two separate and very distinct issues.

Trumpenkrieg

I sense that this is an article by a young person with very narrow philosophical horizons, who has been brought up from a very early age to consider that government is the answer to all questions and that all problems can simply be legislated away, and that an increase in the volume of legislation has no downside, just as there are no downsides inherent in codifying subjective notions such as “health”. As a law student, the process of putting opinion must necessarily involve critically analysing that opinion for weak points which may be vulnerable to counter arguments. This article takes it as a given that because France, a notoriously statist and interventionist country, has tried to legislate unhealthy body images in the media, then there is no other way. I propose that there is an alternative way to deal with the problem, and that is that we need scale back on human rights and impose some human responsibilities on snowflakes who seem to spend 10 hours a day engrossed in their mobile phones, which is how most of them are influenced by advertising. Bring back conscription and launch a new Crusade, I say.

No

blaming eating disorders on mobile phone usage – looks like the only one with narrow philosophical views is you

Anonymous

Very True! When are mental health issues ever a topic of priority!

Marge

ARRGH!!!!!

A SKELETON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Legion

Ask Jeremy Hunt and Ralf Little.

Anonymous

Ask Aspel.

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