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 814.

    Here in the US especially, we have an epidemic of super slim underweight people. I totally understand why this article was written now, under-eating and being underweight is a huge problem, leading to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Now more than ever before, the current generations are being outlived by their parents because they are simply starving to death.

  • rate this

    Comment number 813.

    809. Linds: Incisive, excellent post. Nuff said.

  • rate this

    Comment number 812.

    If there is a restriction imposed on thin people then surely the same should be applied to obese people.....
    Funny how the UK has the highest proportion of obese women in the whole of Europe, with one in four women being OBESE - not fat or overweight, but medically obese.
    Perspective people please, at least if you're very thin you can put on weight easily and quickly with minimal effort

  • rate this

    Comment number 811.

    Women, they're funny!

    Thankfully I'm a physically trim man with a toned bum and level head!

  • rate this

    Comment number 810.

    My daughter is a model..and although she is a salad fan, is also fond of pizza and chocolate!... She is 5'6inches and 7st 5lbs and at age 17 was told by an ex-model 'booker' to lose a stone! Needless to say she told the booker she wasnt interested. She joined another agency and now has an international career, she is curvier than some .of the girls, but no less successful. Bones dont equal beauty

  • rate this

    Comment number 809.

    The fashion and beauty industry can never depict normality. Its only function is to show us what-we-are-not and convince us to buy something to change us into what-we-are-not. It has no other remit but to market a dream of a different life. Models are impossibly thin because most people are not. If everyone was thin models would be fat. I wish people loved themselves more and looked away.

  • rate this

    Comment number 808.

    We live in a free country.
    Choices are PERSONAL !
    Critics follow anti personal choice views.
    Choose to drink/not,eat well/not, smoke/not,get fat/not.
    All are for citizens to choose.
    However as the Nanny State cannot resist interfering they make up stuff. And people follow like sheep.
    Keep busybody noses out of lives of people. BBC at fault with its nanny guidelines.
    Live free +enjoy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 807.

    Yep the only things that SHOULD look like sticks , are first of all sticks and then insects ....... why on earth ANY woman WANTS to look like an undernourished boy , I simply do NOT know ? In common with most men that I know , I prefer women to look like women , with curves in all the right places and a happy personality , I do NOT and never will like malnutrition , it is not healthy nor good .

  • rate this

    Comment number 806.

    like em in dungarees hey?

  • rate this

    Comment number 805.

    What a world! Another man's food is another's poison. In our own society, we measure women by seizes. Skinny women would be at the back of "plus" women.

  • rate this

    Comment number 804.

    I agree that many models and actors are too thin. However, it bothers me that the media focuses on this problem so prominently. What about the MILLIONS of obese people in our country (US, in my case)? The number of obese people far outweighs the number of people who are underweight or suffer from an eating disorder. Obesity is a much bigger problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 803.

    790. Maxone: 'Food rationing' Chuckle! You're not wrong! It IS nuts to be discussing this subject this way. People are hugely susceptible to advertising, that's why it exists & why it needs regulating. The govt. raises money from fatVAT(nice phrase) , then spends it telling us not to eat the stuff! Why not put a big red circle on food that's had sugar & salt added for non preservative reasons?

  • rate this

    Comment number 802.

    Am I in the right place to book a flight.

  • Comment number 801.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 800.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 799.

    Politicos began a tirade against matters they wished to control,smokers,the overweight, people who drink alcoholtargeted by the politically correct"Slim women are the enemy" Who is exempt from PC tirades. Get a life PCidjits
    Make your mind up PC brigade.
    A slim woman now evil?? A fat woman now evil?
    Criticising people because of their lifestyle should be illegal, as should Political Correctness

  • rate this

    Comment number 798.

    778 Chris - yes but skeletal isn't good. Too thin, you risk your fertility, osteoporosis, muscle degeneration, all sorts of long term issues. Mind you, too fat does the same. It's the bad influence that these body images have on young impressionable kids (both genders) that concerns me. A healthy body needs a covering of some fat over strong muscle so sensible exercise and diet is necessary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 797.

    as an overweight bloke i do not see skinny blokes as something to aspire to.women who are so lacking in self confidence they find looking at skinny women intimidating,need to grow a backbone

  • rate this

    Comment number 796.

    I think overweight women are far bigger issue. In the UK in particular it's a massive (no pun intended) issue.

    Go abroad and see how much more health women in Europe are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 795.

    779. morriarty: 'Us blokes?' What 'us blokes' fancy has infinite variety. Personally, I prefer athletic women who have their own sense of fashion, don't tend to wear high heels, and think for themselves rather than join the herd. Everybody else is entitled to find attractive whoever it is they find attractive, without being pilloried for not fancying a particular demographic. Same for women.


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