Are thin women the enemy?

Angelina Jolie At the Oscars, Angelina Jolie came under fire for her thin frame

From super-skinny celebrities to models with low BMI, people are speaking out about women they perceive to be too thin. But some experts worry this behaviour makes things worse.

This week, Israel passed a law banning models from advertisements or fashion shows if they measure less than 18.5 on the body mass index (BMI). It's part of an effort to promote health for women of all sizes, and to stop glorifying the ultra-thin.

"Beautiful is not underweight," says Rachel Adato, one of the creators of the bill.

In recent years, much attention has been paid to how women are portrayed in the media, whether it's an overly airbrushed magazine model with an impossibly slim waist, or a TV starlet with protruding collar bones.

In an era when pro-anorexia communities congregate on social media sites like Pinterest, it's no wonder that lawmakers are concerned with women's body image.

For sure, reducing the number of images that portray women as very thin is beneficial, says Claire Mysko, director of Proud2BeMe, a website created with the National Eating Disorders Association (Neda) to promote healthy body image.

"There is a danger in being constantly exposed to one image of beauty," she says. "There is a serious lack of body diversity in the media. People are not seeing themselves and their bodies reflected."

Israel's law may be the catalyst needed to help make change. But others say it could make things worse.

'Arbitrary' system

Many magazine editors, modelling agents and casting directors say they want to use more diverse models, but can't because of industry expectations - with each blaming the other group for setting the tone.

"They all feel trapped into producing what nobody individually espouses," says Amanda Mears, author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model. "Everyone felt individually powerless."

Regulating the types of models that can be used may be a good way to "shock" the system into making changes, she says.

However, she, along with many other experts on eating disorders and body image, worry that the law is flawed.

"Bodies come in different shapes and sizes, and the very idea that there is a concrete qualifying number, and if someone can match it they're considered healthy, is wrong," she says.

What about air brushing?

The Israeli law also requires air brushing to be disclosed, similar to laws in the UK, Spain and Italy. "That's something I can appreciate," says Eric Stice, a scientist at the Oregon Research Institute. "There are a lot of women busting their butt to look like an image that nobody really looks like. Not even the models look like they're portrayed in the magazine."

More disclosure about altered images can also help facilitate conversations with children, which can help build better media savvy, says Matthew Johnson, director of the Media Awareness Network. "Knowing it is manipulated is not enough," says Mr Johnson. "Young people need to have critical thinking skills."

BMI, a ratio of height to weight, is best used as a way to measure the average size of groups of people, but is not a good indicator of personal health, says Margo Maine, a clinical psychologist who has specialised in eating disorders.

"It's arbitrary," she says.

"In the past I would have welcomed [the law] but I am a little leery of the judgment about the correct body type."

Limiting the types of bodies that are permitted to model or considered attractive can backfire, says Matthew Johnson, director of education at the Media Awareness Network, a media education programme in Canada.

"What would be more effective would be encouraging a wider variety of body shapes on TV and in media in general."

Otherwise, the message is not to celebrate bodies of all shapes and sizes, but to reject extreme thinness.

Toxic effect

"We have reduced women to their size," says Dr Maine, author of the The Body Myth.

"By targeting women who are thin, whether they have an eating disorder or are naturally thin, we are focusing on the individual instead of challenging the culture that buys into it."

Modelling laws worldwide

Models in Moscow
  • Spain: Madrid fashion week restricted models who have a BMI of less than 18 (2006)
  • Italy: Government instituted a self-policing code of conduct for the fashion industry, including requiring medical proof that models do not have eating disorders (2006)
  • UK: the Advertising Standards Authority issued guidelines about the use of digitally manipulating photos, saying they will stop ads that are misleading, including those that portray extreme thinness (2011)

Thin women may have an easier go of it than fat women, but they're still subject to attacks about their size. Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, is subjected to constant speculation about her health and comments about her weight.

Angelina Jolie's Oscar appearance last month set Twitter alight with criticisms of her thin frame. "Angelina Jolie looks like her arms are ready to snap in half at any moment. Gross," wrote one user.

Speaking out against very thin star celebrities can feel like a satisfying blow against unrealistic body standards, says Raegan Chastain.

As an advocate for fat acceptance she has often heard people criticise women for being too thin.

Still, she warns those trying to come to terms with their own size to leave other people out of it.

"If you want to push against standards, you don't do that by bashing people," she says.

"You can't look at someone and tell how healthy they are. Weight and health are two separate things."

With that in mind, Neda has advocated that models be screened for eating disorders, but not that they be prohibited from working based on a size and weight limit.

They've also launched Proud2BeMe, an extension of a Dutch website designed as a safe space to discuss body issues and health concerns.

"There are people who are naturally thin and people who are naturally heavier, and we need to accept a diversity," Ms Mysko says.

"That's the goal: not to define one body type as attractive and another type as unattractive."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 534.

    Nothing wrong with being thin a long as it's healthily/abnormally thin. The problem arises when unhealthily/abnormally thin people are held up as an exemplar to others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 533.

    Angelina need to be careful as she is getting so thin she will soon run out of space to put the tattoos! But seriously, the blame needs to be put at the steps of the fashion houses and advertisers who have always promoted the skinny sultry look.

    All this hype is nothing new, anyone remember Twiggy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 532.

    I am all in favour of enforcing a minimum BMI for models in order to counteract the growing problem of models being considered unacceptable unless they are extremely thin. Since the BMI is a little fuzzy at the boundaries, you can play it safe by setting a slightly lower BMI minimum, e.g. 17.5 or 18 (anything under 18.5 is considered underweight - it used to be 20).

  • rate this

    Comment number 531.

    The media feed this judgemental scrutinisation of women and it's insidious impact upon how we perceive each other - it's so damaging.
    Being 5 foot 11 and still stick thin even after having 2 kids is not easy - I know I am most certainly in the minority and frequently mis-judged as 'never eating', anorexic, etc. Why is it OK for someone to say 'You are so skinny' and not 'You are so fat'?.

  • rate this

    Comment number 530.

    Easy way to tell if women are above a healthy weight: if they're ovulating. (I teach natural family planning.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 529.

    Oh, honestly, BMI is nonsense. Absolutely support more diversity, because our attitude to weight and health is bizarre, but body policing isn't the way to do it. The focus should be on health, not weight - I know I'd rather feel healthy than conform to some arbitrary standard of 'beauty'. I don't care if you think I look good; I've got so many other priorities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 528.

    We live in a Country where obesity is ignored, where being very fat is considered acceptable, is protected from any form of criticism and is often encouraged. So is it really surprising that we take it one step further and ridicule slim people? Is it just me or are society norms going a little bit crazy?

  • rate this

    Comment number 527.

    The uncomfortable truth of it is that 'unrealistic representations' sell (they may have been criticising, but everyone was watching AJ), so I think it unlikely that industry will combat the problem itself. Why would it?

    I'm naturally slim, but wouldn't mind restrictions being placed on model sizes if it made people a little bit happier in their own skin. I've had it easy and know it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 526.

    @505.Catherine, actually there are studies that show you are lucky, aas genes you inherit from your parents can influence your size. THe FTO is one gene seem to be a factor, there are 3 possible combinations AT, AA, TT, a person with the AA pairing is 70% more likely to be 'obese' than someone with a TT pairing. But its too easy for the self righetous to say 'they eat too much'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 525.

    People always say the BMI isn't accurate. But i hate to tell you guys this but it is accurate.

    If the BMI says your overwieght/obese it's because you are. People are in denial over this.

    And the idea models are causing a problem in society is ridiculous, have you seen how many fat people there are? LOADS OF THEM.

  • rate this

    Comment number 524.

    A typical leading BBC HYS question designed to elicit vitriol against fat people, and predictably many posters have taken the bait. Correct me if I'm wrong, but being occasionally told to 'eat a sandwich' is on a slightly different level to being cast as modern-day folk devils, discriminated against in healthcare, clothing, employment, reproductive rights, bullied and even physically attacked.

  • rate this

    Comment number 523.

    484. MayaGold re 479.Maxone re BMI & more attractive!

    BMI is one measure and an 'indicator' - it does not prove that someone is 'healthy' or 'more' attractive'!

    Curves: males tend to find female curves MORE attractive than a skinny female! Biological & evolutionary studies and research prove it!
    Also a new word for you: symmetry!

    A female with good symmetry is more attractive!

    Forget BMI!

  • rate this

    Comment number 522.

    "I am a little leery of the judgment about the correct body type." says Margo Maine, rather giving the impression that she looks at them with a Rigsby-style lee so wonderfully portrayed by Leonard Rossiter as he looked at Miss. Jones in "Rising Damp".
    Perhaps she meant "wary". . .

    "a TV starlet with protruding collar bones."
    What: are they sticking through her skin, or just prominent?

  • rate this

    Comment number 521.

    Are the people complaining about models being skinny unhappy with their body image by any chance?

  • rate this

    Comment number 520.

    Eating disorders have been around as long as recorded history: fat people, people who starve themselves, people who throw up to make the weight. People with long skinny bones find it easy to keep the weight down, others struggle. Slim women arouse envy; fat women are more likely to dvelop diabetes. Take your pick. Stop being so obsessed with other people's bodies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 519.

    In an age when a staggering percentage of the western world's population is overweight this article is a complete waste of publishing space. Let's see far more about the grossly obese, how much THEY collectively cost their nations in healthcare costs - the number of people who are underweight is just a tiny figure compared to the fat ones. We need more skinny people!

  • rate this

    Comment number 518.

    It makes me sick that women that look after themselves, watch what they eat, exercise and don't drink vast amounts of alcohol are persecuted. Women that are overweight are called "real women" and accepted by society. I think this is completely wrong, obesity costs us and the NHS huge amounts of money each year because people are too lazy to look after themselves. Go non obese women.

  • rate this

    Comment number 517.

    The thin /gaunt look is not a nice look - ask anyone.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 516.

    Fat , thin , diet this , diet that ..... its down to people to make their choices , personally Angelina looks too skinny to me , actually ill and off putting as a red blooded male . The biggest issue though in the UK and around the world is obesity and if we as a society want to criticise someone for being too thin then we should be allowed to criticise people for being too fat .

  • rate this

    Comment number 515.

    BBC: What even is this? Seriously. The 'news' and 'features' on here go from bad to worse to... nothing.


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