Sun, Jul 17, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Israel could force agencies to check thin models' health

THE GUARDIAN , TEL AVIV

In a dreary back street in an unfashionable area of Tel Aviv, dozens of teenagers are arriving in search of glamor. The Image model agency is conducting its weekly registration session. Portfolios and attitude are not required. Just fill in the forms, attach a passport photograph and you might be called for an audition.

For Dana, 12, this first step in the process of becoming a model is a realization of an ambition that has kept her alive over the past year as she has battled with anorexia. If she succeeds, she will be joining a world in which almost half the models hold down their weight by using drugs or vomiting, according to insiders.

Adi Barkan, an Israeli photographer and model agent, became acutely aware of the pervasiveness of anorexia when he interviewed 12,000 females aged 13 to 24 in a televised search for Israel's next supermodel. He estimated that between 35 percent and 40 percent of these aspiring models were anorexic. This realization, combined with repeated encounters with the illness, persuaded him to launch a crusade to combat it within his industry.

Today, a committee of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, will decide whether to proceed with a bill to compel model agencies to monitor the health and body mass index (BMI; the ratio of height to weight) of models. Models would have to undergo regular medical tests to ensure their BMI is 19 or above. The most serious anorexics can have a BMI as low as seven.

If the Knesset passes the bill, Barkan hopes the effect will be two-fold. First, agencies will be forced to confront a problem they have for long ignored and second, only "healthy" models will be seen on television, in magazines and on billboards.

Lobbying for the bill is just the latest of Barkan's strategies to combat anorexia since he was contacted by a mother whose daughter was wasting away. "She told me, `My daughter is 15 and weighs 30kg'" The girl had told her mother that if Barkan said she needed to eat, then she would.

"It was clear that I could make a difference to this girl's life. After seven months of meeting with her, her weight had increased to 51 kilos," he says.

Barkan spoke about his experience in a three-minute television interview. In the days that followed, he received 155 phone calls from girls suffering from anorexia. "Then I understood that there was a big problem in Israel that no one was talking about," he says.

Barkan worked in London, Paris and New York for 15 years as a fashion photographer before setting up a modelling agency in Israel seven years ago.

"You don't think about the private lives of the models, you just take the pictures and that's it. It was only when I had my own agency that I began to see things from a different perspective," he says.

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