Walking down the streets of Manhattan, it is impossible to ignore the hundreds of fashion advertisements plastered on shop windows, all flaunting thin and attractive models who look nothing like the average customer. These images may push consumers to contempt of their own bodies, even pressuring them to mirror the models’ looks. However, greater pressure falls on prospective models, who often rely on their drastic thinness in order to find work. Eating disorders are commonplace in this relentless industry, and cases of women dying from starvation have made headlines in recent years. But even good-natured intervention is based on flawed logic, and could potentially be a limitation on the creativity of the fashion world.
In a high-profile move last year, France joined Israel, Italy and Spain in passing legislation which prohibits agencies and labels from displaying models with low BMIs. Last week, the United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority, an independent regulator of advertisements in media, upheld a complaint that a model in a Gucci advertisement looked, in their words, unhealthily thin. The ruling prohibits the ad from appearing again in its current form in the U.K. This ban was enacted by a self-regulating authority with no legal standing, but it is only the latest example of the ASA’s crackdown on skinny models, and a hint that the U.K. will soon follow the lead of its European neighbors and take the debate to Parliament.
In a global industry heavily dependent on the unregulated internet, legislation can do little to prevent consumers from exposure to thin models. The laws are also based on flawed science, as the BMI often deems many natural, fit body types unhealthy. Yet the ultimate drawback perhaps stems from the symbolism — the world of fashion is a bastion of artistic expression, and any legal restriction can only do harm.
Companies that have autonomously embraced calls for realistic body depictions have been rewarded. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty earned universal praise and has kept the brand in a positive light for over a decade. American Eagle’s #AerieReal campaign, when the company stopped retouching models in its ads, was credited with significantly increasing profits. These actions, and not some ineffective and confining legislation, warrant a pat on the back from activists.
Government intervention seeks to protect vulnerable young women from physical and mental health disorders and to promote the celebration of all body types. While these are good intentions, regulation would set too risky a precedent in the industry. Many American brands have begun to recognize the benefits of body positivity, and as the voice of consumers grows louder, international luxury labels will follow suit. Constructive reform must be demanded from a vocal public and high-minded executives, not some restrictive authority.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 11 print edition. Email Akshay Prabhushankar at [email protected]