Watch Out, Lena Dunham and Vogue: Fashion Photoshopping Can Be Illegal

Artificially making models and celebrities look slender gets you in big trouble in Israel. But where should the line be drawn?

The fuss over whether or not writer and actress Lena Dunham was photoshopped to look thinner and more glamorous in Vogue magazine - and whether it is nobly feminist or downright nasty to point out how her flaws were concealed - has been the buzz in the girlier quarters of the Internet recently.

What sparked the controversy was the web site Jezebel’s $10,000 bounty for unretouched photos of Dunham’s shoot for Vogue magazine so they could be compared with the final product. The cash offer did the trick: within two hours they had six photos.

Exposing the reality behind the fantasy images of glamorous women is not a new phenomenon - Jezebel itself has done it before, and the Internet is chock full of sites who do it on a regular basis - feeding the desire to get a peek behind the glossy curtain of fashion spreads and advertising.

But when Jezebel started targeting Dunham – a Jewish, un-model-like, TV wunderkind, who quite freely exposes her less-than-perfect body in her HBO hit show "Girls" – her fans and advocates were up in arms.

One writer slammed Jezebel for “profiting off the same ogling and body-consciousness it’s allegedly fighting against” pointing out that “Jezebel didn’t offer a bounty for pictures of Jessica Chastain, Kate Winslet or Sandra Bullock, Vogue’s last three cover girls. They singled out Dunham as being somehow more “Photoshop-able,” an implicit judgment of her body and attractiveness far more severe than whatever tweaks the people at Vogue might’ve made.”

In Israel, photoshopping models or actresses in fashion magazines and turning them into taller and slimmer versions of themselves isn’t merely a matter for online discussion - it’s a legal issue. Since January 2013, a new law has been in place in Israel, known as the “Photoshop Law” which outlaws digitally altering photographs that make models look thinner, unless the final picture comes with a full disclosure admitting the alterations.

The same law forbids extremely underweight models to appear in advertising, requiring them to submit to regular examinations by doctors to determine whether their body mass index falls within acceptable boundaries. If you are an aspiring model, and your doctor finds you have a BMI under 18.5 - you are out of luck - you better hit the nearest McDonalds or falafel stand and gain some weight. 

The law was the brainchild of former Knesset member Dr. Rachel Adato, a gynecologist who initiated the legislation after she was alarmed by the statistic that 2 percent of Israeli teenagers suffered from serious eating disorders. Adato teamed up with Adi Barkan, a modeling agent who said he wanted to atone for his industry’s sins of encouraging models, even to the point of anorexia and death.

The law has come under attack from understandably unhappy models. Some feel they now have to walk a tightrope between being skinny enough to model and not losing too much weight as to break the law. Others also say the law discriminates against those who do not suffer from malnutrition, but are naturally thin.

The law is also semi-unenforceable and discriminatory towards local talent. Much of the advertising in Israel, like anywhere else, comes from global campaigns featuring international celebrities. I don’t see Israel sending doctors overseas to see whether Keira Knightley or model Gisele Bundchen are clinically underweight.

A recent study underlined the need for the law, according to the Jerusalem Post, reporting on a Microsoft research that “examined the connection between web searches for performers and models regarded as anorexic and the fans’ searches for websites with tips on to “how to become anorexic.”

The study “found that anorexic models and celebrities appearing on websites led to an almost two-fold increase in subsequent searches for these people and the development of anorexia itself. People who develop anorexia tend to become more interested in celebrities who look as if they are starving.”

Something tells me the fashion body-image police in Israel aren’t going to go around confiscating copies of Vogue: after all, nobody worries that 27-year-old Lena Dunham is suffering from malnutrition. So the question becomes whether the taboo of even minor Photoshop tweaks should apply if the result is a photo that does not make the subject look unhealthily thin.

Dunham herself had no problem with the photo spread. She said - echoing the arguments of those who opposed Israel’s Photoshop law – that “a fashion magazine is like a beautiful fantasy. Vogue isn’t the place that we go to look at realistic women, Vogue is the place that we go to look at beautiful clothes and fancy places and escapism.”

She said she was pleased with the results of the Vogue shoot and that for her the bottom line was promoting her show, a perfectly respectable goal for an ambitious 27-year-old. And if maximum publicity was her priority, she should be really happy right now - the Jezebel Photoshop controversy got her much more of than she ever could have dreamed of.

Reuters