A June 2015 decision by the Advertising Standards Authority
(ASA) in the United Kingdom – the equivalent of Advertising
Standards Canada – recently upheld a reader's complaint
that an Yves St. Laurent advertisement featuring an
"unhealthily thin" model was irresponsible. The ad, which
appeared in Elle UK Magazine, is shown below.
The ASA considered that the model's pose and the lighting
drew particular focus to her prominent visible ribcage and to her
legs, where, the ASA observed, her thighs and knees appeared to be
of a similar width. Relying on Clause 1.3 of the UK Code which
provides that "marketing communications must be prepared with
a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society", the
ASA concluded that the model appeared unhealthily underweight and
the ad was therefore "irresponsible". It banned the ad
and directed the advertiser to ensure the images in its ads were
This decision from the UK follows an April, 2015 vote by
France's National Assembly which banned the use of fashion
models deemed to be excessively thin. In an effort to avoid
subjective judgments of what is "too thin", under the
French law, thin is defined with reference to a body mass index
(BMI). Modeling agencies which employ models with a BMI below 18
face hefty fines up to €75,000 or prison terms. Advertisers
are also required to state when photos have been retouched, failing
which they also can be fined up to €37,500. (For a typical
5'10″ model, that's about 125 pounds.)
France's law was modeled after Israel's which was
earlier out of the box in 2012. The Israeli law prohibits an ad
depicting a model without a medical authorization certifying her
BMI is not lower than 18.5 for adults. It also requires that ads
which have been graphically manipulated must indicate this in a
clarification covering at least 7% of the total space occupied by
Other countries, like Italy, Spain, Australia and Denmark rely
on voluntary Codes of Conduct in their real body image battle.
Spain bars models below a certain BMI; Italy requires health
certificates for those on the catwalk and Denmark requires healthy
While a number of US constitutional experts and bloggers
criticized the Israeli legislation as limiting freedom of
expression, the Knesset had no trouble finding that the risk of
mortality and risks to health from promotion of unhealthy images
outweighed free expression in the modeling industry.
The debate has not yet come to Canada but certainly, the
Canadian Code of Advertising Standards is broad enough to entertain
a complaint respecting underweight models. Clause 14 relating to
"Unacceptable Depictions and Portrayals" provides that
advertisements shall not "(d) undermine human dignity; or
display obvious indifference to, or encourage, gratuitously and
without merit, conduct or attitudes that offend the standards of
public decency prevailing among a significant segment of the
Advertisers in Canada could equally be subjected to a complaint
for employing excessively thin models; but, unlike the UK, the
Canadian Advertising Standards Council has no power to ban an
offending ad. Advertising Standards Canada employs a
complaint-driven compliance mechanism. If Council determines the
advertisement contravenes one or more clauses of the Code such that
a complaint is upheld, the advertiser is asked to
voluntarily amend or withdraw the advertisement.
If there is a public will to change the face and shape of
beauty, it will take a legislative initiative in Canada. At that
time, the debate on free expression can be fully engaged.
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guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
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