The law, passed late Monday, appears to be the first attempt by any government to use legislation to take on a fashion industry accused of abetting eating disorders by idealizing extreme thinness. It could become a model for other countries grappling with the spread of anorexia and bulimia, particularly among young women.
The law's supporters said they hoped it would encourage the use of healthy models in local advertising and heighten awareness of digital tricks that transform already thin women into illusory waifs.
"We want to break the illusion that the model we see is real," said Liad Gil-Har, assistant to law sponsor Dr. Rachel Adato, who compares the battle against eating disorders to the struggle against smoking.
In Israel, about 2 per cent of all girls between 14 and 18 have severe eating disorders, which is a statistic similar to other developed countries, said anthropologist Sigal Gooldin who studies eating disorders.
The new law requires models to produce a medical report, dating back no more than three months, at every shoot that will be used on the Israeli market, stating that they are not malnourished by World Health Organization standards.
The U.N. agency uses a standard known as the body mass index — calculated by dividing weight by height — to determine malnutrition. WHO says a body-mass index below 18.5 is indicative of malnutrition, said Adato, a gynecologist.
According to that standard, a woman 5 feet 8 inches (1.72 metres) tall should weigh no less than 119 pounds (54 kilograms).
Any advertisement published for the Israeli market must also have a clearly written notice disclosing if the model used in it was digitally altered to make her, or him, look thinner. The law will not apply to foreign publications sold in Israel.
The law was championed by one of Israel's top model agents, Adi Barkan, who said in 30 years of work, he saw young women become skinnier and sicker while struggling to fit the shrinking mould of what the industry considered attractive.
"They look like dead girls," Barkan said.
Critics said the legislation should have focused on health, not weight, saying many models were naturally very thin.
"The health of the model ... should be evaluated. Our weight can change hour to hour," said David Herzog, a professor of psychiatry and a leading U.S. expert on eating disorders.
Top Israeli model Adi Neumman said she wouldn't pass under the new rules, because her BMI was 18.3. Neumman said she ate well and exercised. She said legislation should have focused on health and well-being, not weight.
"Force actual tests. Make girls go to a doctor. Get a system to follow girls who are found to be puking," she said.
Legislator Adato said only 5 per cent of women had BMI that naturally fell under 18.5.
"On the one hand, maybe we'll hurt a few models," Adato said. "On the other hand, we'll save a lot of children."
Pressure on the fashion industry has intensified in recent years, sparked by the deaths of models in Brazil and Uruguay from medical complications linked to eating disorders.
Uruguayan model, Luisel Ramos, 22, collapsed soon after stepping off the runway in August 2006, reportedly of anorexia-linked heart failure.
Other governments have taken steps to prevent "size zero" medical problems, but have shied from legislation.
The Madrid fashion show bans women whose BMI is below 18. Milan's fashion week bans models with a BMI below 18.5.
The U.K. and U.S. have guidelines, but the fashion industry is self-regulated.
Unrealistic body images in the media are believed to shape eating habits, especially among young people, though there is debate about how influential they are.
Gooldin, the anthropologist, said young women used in television, movies and advertisements as references for the ideal body, rather than the women around them.
"There's a gap between our own bodies ... and ideal bodies. They keep shrinking and getting smaller," she said.
It's not clear whether the law will have a measurable impact, because Israeli teens take their cues from both international media and local publications, Gooldin said. And the ban isn't likely to affect many — there are only about 300 professional models in Israel, and only a few work abroad, said agent Barkan and model Neumman.
But Gooldin said it was a positive step to deal with a problem that has plagued Western societies.
Legislator Adato said she hoped Israel would be an example other countries could study.
"You don't need to be underweight to be beautiful, or successful," she said.