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H&M: 'Our fashion models are too thin'

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Screenshots of models from H&M's autumn campaign.
15:38 CET+01:00
Outspoken Israeli fashion photographer Adi Barkan has lashed out at H&M, accusing the company of using models that are too skinny in their autumn campaign. And the Swedish fashion retailer agrees.

On Thursday, H&M released its new luxury collaborative collection with French designer Isabel Marant, but that wasn't the only reason the Swedish fashion chain was making headlines. Facing criticism that the models in its fall campaign are too thin, company spokeswoman Karin Bringevall surprised the Swedish press by conceding to the accusations.

"We agree that some of our models are too thin, and it's something we are going to look over," Bringevall wrote in an email to newspaper Expressen on Wednesday.  "This is a very important issue for us and something we are working to improve."

The statement came after Israeli fashion photographer Adi Barkan publicly criticized the company's global autumn campaign.

"It's obvious that several of these women have BMI's below 18.5. I don't know if they fixed it with Photoshop, but it looks terrible. No one can tell me these are healthy women. No way," Barkan said to Sveriges Television (SVT). "And the girls who go to the store, they see the skinny girls and they want to be like the skinny girls. We know that."

Barkan, who runs a modeling agency in Tel Aviv, has campaigned widely for legislation banning anorexic models. In March 2012, Israel was the first country in the world to outlaw underweight models, and today no model with a Body Mass Index BMI below 18.5 is allowed in commercials or on the catwalk. 

Although the legislation has been in place since 2012 it has yet to be tested in court - though H&M's campaign may change that. 

"It's obvious they have not followed Israeli law," said Israeli gynaecologist and lawyer Rachel Adato to SVT, adding that she has already been in contact with other lawyers about the issue. Adato stated that anorexia is the number one cause of death for Israeli women between the ages of 15 and 23. "It’s about time to do something about it in court."

The BMI scale compares weight to height, and a healthy weight should fall between 20 and 25, while anything above it is overweight. People who score below 18.5 are classified as underweight by healthcare practitioners who use the index as reference.

 "We do not work with models who are noticeably underweight," H&M's Bringevall told Expressen. But Barkan is sceptical.

"Why photograph the models and then distance yourself once the pictures are out?" Barkan retorted on SVT. "This isn't just about thin or too thin, it's about life and death. It's better to have an eye on the models before they are even photographed." 

Bringevall confirmed to The Local that the models have not been made thinner in Photoshop, and are simply that thin.

Exactly what action the company will take remains unclear. Although H&M has not released an official statement, when The Local contacted H&M, Bringevall responded by recycling the same email sent to Expressen. The company has refused all requests to comment over the phone.

"It is too early too say concretely what will be done," Bringevall wrote to The Local. "This is a very important question for us. But on the other hand we do not think BMI is a reliable measure to guarantee images with a healthy body image."

Earlier this year H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson admitted some of the company's models were too thin, but also claimed that for many of them, it was natural. When newspaper Metro asked what would happen if H&M were to take the lead and try to influence other companies to use full-figured models, Persson was evasive, saying such an approach may not work.

"It's hard to say. It's possible that we can be on board and make a change, but it really is such a big industry," he said. 

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Adato views such passive behaviour is simply a poor attempt to dodge taking responsibility.

“H&M is such a big company that they don't need to do this. They don't need to use underweight women to have an impact.”

The fashion chain has stores in 53 countries around the world, including 13 stores in Israel, 270 in the US, and some 180 in Sweden. The company opened its first store in Indonesia in October. 

Solveig Rundquist

Follow Solveig on Twitter

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