Dr. Latzer and Dr. Roer

Dr. Latzer and Dr. Roer

Senior Staff Writer Anna Hotter braved the inhumane temperatures to report back from Aryeh’s talk about Israeli Photoshop Law. TW: The article contains discussion of eating disorders and body image.

If you own a computer and a Facebook account, you have probably seen one of those “Real Beauty” Dove commercials. The premise is usually simple: Media tell women over and over what they should look like, act like, be like, and Dove, as a body-positive, feel-good brand is trying to change this by celebrating “real beauty.” Putting aside the maybe hypocritical tensions within its parent Unilever, Dove’s ad agency certainly has a point.

Media play a huge role in shaping the body- and self-image of women, and have often been accused of contributing to the pandemic of eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorders that primarily affect young women and girls.

Israel is the first country to take legislative steps against the perpetuation of these unhealthy standards. In March 2012 the Knesset passed a law that bans the use of underweight models from catwalks, and forces companies to disclose use of Photoshop in ads, despite active lobbying from the fashion and beauty industry. Yesterday evening, Dr. Yael Latzer, an eating disorder specialist who served as a clinical consultant in the bill’s review, spoke about its conception at an event organised by Aryeh in Columbia’s Kraft Centre.

Israel, according to Latzer, has one of the highest rates of disordered eating in young girls (it is only surpassed by the US and Canada), and consequently found itself in a position to act. Up to 60% of Israeli teenage girls exhibit symptoms of disordered eating, a statistic that might not shock some of us, but is none the less significant when compared to other OECD countries. Dr. Latzer mentioned that it is common practice for girls to consume their school lunch in bathroom stalls because they don’t want to be seen eating publicly. As the head of an eating disorder centre in Haifa, she has first-hand experience with the potential outcomes of such a culture.

On hearing accounts like this, we often turn to blame the media for perpetuating unhealthy, unattainable standards in the first place, and rightfully so. I don’t think anybody who has ever walked past a Victoria’s Secret store front would argue with me when I say that there is a schism between the images we consume, and the bodies most of us inhabit. As Dr. Latzer reiterated in her speech, media play a crucial role in the way young people, primarily girls, form a perception of reality, and are thereby also culpable for its distortion.

Israel’s pioneering law tries to exert some sort of control over the way such bodies are represented, in an effort to bring healthier role-models to the billboards and TV’s of its cities. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the central argument against the passing of this bill was appealing to freedom of speech, freedom of advertising, and, in the case of the catwalk models, freedom of occupation. Dr. Latzer said that, while all these considerations were taken seriously by the Knesset, they were ultimately dismissed with the argument that in one case only a handful of models were negatively affected, while in the other, it was the majority of the female population.

But another problem that might not seem as intuitive could be brought to Israel’s so-called “Photoshop Law”: media usually plays a relatively small role in the lived pathologies of full-blown eating disorders. Some sufferers and survivors of anorexia and bulimia nervosa, and EDNOS will be able to tell you that Kate Moss’ thigh gap has little to do with their mental illness, as eating disorders are above all that, clinical illnesses. “Eating disorders are not about size, they are about distress,” Latzer reminds the room repeatedly. It is not at all obvious that the regulation of media should have a meaningful effect on their severity, and so the question of why we would even want such a bill, might arise.

Dr. Latzer is of course well aware of this tension. Her presentation very clearly distinguished between eating disorders, and “disordered eating.” The latter isn’t clinical, but rather falls under the umbrella of what we think of as “neurotic behaviour” within modern food and diet culture. Latzer admits there is little that can be done about full-blown eating disorders from a media stand point, since the illnesses aren’t necessarily about size or physical representation. Instead, she says, the law can be preventative of disordered eating and unhealthy body image. To put the weight of mental illness on it would not only be unrealistic, but missing the point entirely.

“Not every diet leads to an eating disorder, but every eating disorder starts with a diet.”

The case Dr. Latzer made in front of the Knesset was a more complex one than we might assume, since it doesn’t try to conflate the issues of body image, disordered eating behaviours, and eating disorders. Israel’s “Photoshop Law” is fundamentally preventative in that it attempts to reshape the way young girls perceive reality through media.

Since the bill’s legislation, there have been no cases brought against the fashion and beauty industry, and many outlets have actually hopped on the body-positive band-wagon. Dove is certainly not the only brand that has recognised a shift in the way distorted images are perceived by consumers. “Real Beauty” campaigns are starting to emerge from more and more sides, assuring us that things are going to change. But for now, it seems that the only way to ensure a thorough standard of health is through the force of law.

Photo via Phoebe Jones