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

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By Julia Babiarz on

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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