DECEMBER 13, 2018, WALTHAM – In the near decade since Dr. Rachel Adatto first proposed an Israeli law to address the dangers of eating disorders, she has become a leading voice educating the world.
In Israel alone, some 1,500 new cases of eating disorders are diagnosed each year, according to Adatto, a women’s health physician, former hospital executive, attorney, and former member of Israel’s Knesset.
She walked away from her successful career as medical director of the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem to become an elected member of the Knesset, where she served from 2009 to 2013. She had been encouraged to run for office by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as he launched his Kadima party.
Recently, the 71-year-old Adatto visited Boston, where she spoke at a State House program organized by state Representative Ruth Balser of Newton and at several area colleges about women’s health issues in Israel, the law she shepherded through the Knesset, and the connection between eating disorders and the media’s portrayal of women. Her visit to Boston was sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel to New England.
The Journal caught up with Adatto at Brandeis University in Waltham, where she participated in a panel cosponsored by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and the college’s Schusterman Center for Israel Studies.
Adatto’s focus on eating disorders came accidentally, she said. While serving on a Knesset committee, a question emerged about health care coverage for treatment. As the only medical person in the room, all eyes turned to her, she recalled. She immersed herself in learning about the chronic health problem that often emerges with young teenage girls, but also with men. She worked closely with an expert from Haifa University, whose research showed a clear connection with representations of bodies in the media.
According to Adatto, over the years, fashion photography and advertising have portrayed unhealthy and unrealistic images of women’s bodies. “The media is used to empower the thin look that girls tried to adopt,” she said.
In 2012, after Adatto led a three-year legislative process, the Knesset adopted the “Photoshop Law.” One part of the law prohibits the hiring of adult models whose body mass index, or BMI, is below 18.5. BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight; for people of normal weight, the BMI is 18.5 to 24.9.
The second part of the law requires advertisers and media publications to include a disclaimer if they digitally alter a photograph, with programs such as Photoshop, to make a model appeal thinner.
The law grabbed headlines around the world, thrusting Adatto into an advocacy role she has embraced, advising policy and lawmakers and speaking about eating disorders. Similar laws have been passed in France and Spain; Great Britain and Argentina are considering legislation.
“The main thing is raising awareness of the issue of eating disorders and the connection to the media,” Adatto said.
It’s a message that resonated with Balser, the Newton state representative who was excited to extend an opportunity to legislators and experts in the field of women’s health to hear about Israel’s experience.
“She [Adatto] brings to the table so much, as a physician, an attorney, and as someone who has practiced in the field of women’s health,” Balser said.
There was a lot of interest among the 50 people at the State House briefing, said Balser, who has collaborated on other programs with the Israel consulate. Balser, a longtime advocate of women’s rights, said treatment for eating disorders can fall through the cracks of insurance coverage. She is especially interested in Adatto’s focus on prevention. The two women already have followed up the meeting through emails, Balser said.
As Adatto looks back at the twists and turns of her professional life, she said it is important to take advantage of opportunities. It’s a message she underscored with students at Brandeis.
“My attitude is whenever you have a chance, grab that chance,” she said.
In the future, she is open to reentering politics, she said. The global impact of the “Photoshop Law” has been gratifying, Adatto acknowledged.
“It was a good reason for me to be in Parliament,” she said.