“Any agency would send her away and tell her to lose 3-4 kilos,” Adi Barkan talking about fashion model Ortal, who stands next to him.

What is beauty? It’s a question Israeli fashion photographer Adi Barkan has been wrestling with for seven years, ever since he launched a crusade to rid the fashion industry of its dirty little secret: presenting unhealthy body images that promote eating disorders among young women.

Yesterday, at a press conference in Tel Aviv, Barkan launched the next phase in his campaign: Simply U, a countrywide talent-scouting project to find the most promising healthy, well-balanced and normal-sized would-be models in Israel.

Together with Alon Gal, Israel’s leading personal coach and a childhood friend, Barkan outlined the project’s goals: Simply U will hold seven auditions around Israel and select 20 girls. For six weeks, they will be given training in grooming and modeling, as well as workshops in nutrition, sports and self-esteem. The idea, says Gal, is to turn them not just into fashion models, but into role models as well.

Simply U has ensured it will get lots of media exposure though Israel’s Channel 2, which will follow the audition process, via a 24/7 Internet video channel and a social network that any young woman is free to join. There is a song, co-written by Barkan, which will be on Israel’s IDF Radio play-list as of Sunday. Barkan also hopes to bring in opinion-leaders, both local and international, to speak on behalf of the project’s goals.

Simply-U has four major sponsors: food company Strauss-Elite, cosmetics company L’Oreal; sports gear company New Balance and a contract is set to be signed this week with a leading fashion firm. “I needed four companies that would provide a way to living a healthy life,” Barkan says, adding that he believes others will follow.

“Let’s show them the way”

What Barkan is asking of the fashion industry is very difficult. He is asking the insiders, mavens and sophisticates to suspend cynicism and believe that they can change the world.

He has every reason to think he can do it. A 30-year industry veteran, Barkan started his crusade seven years ago, after his experience with model, Hila Elmalich, an anorexic whom he rushed to hospital after she collapsed. She later died.

In 2004, he successfully submitted a bill to the Knesset that requires all Israeli modeling agencies to use Body Mass Index (BMI) as a pre-requisite for employment. Today, the governments of Spain and France have adopted legislation based, in part, on Barkan’s efforts, that prevent underweight girls from runway modeling.

“We decided to take on the world of glamour and change it. We can change the world – all it takes is getting the photographers, the modeling agencies, ad agencies, and the fashion media on board – there aren’t that many of us here in Israel. And the agencies abroad are looking to us. We wrote a law that the French adopted. Let’s get over being cynical. Let’s recognize the problem for what it is. Let’s create an alternative. Let’s show them the way,” Barkan says.

The next step, Simply U, is not intended to promote “plus sized” models. The goal is to bring the industry to heel and set realistic standards for female proportions.

Models have to look like someone on TV

“As a heterosexual male, I grew up with a certain image of female beauty. There was once a feeling among models that you could be you. Today, you have to look like someone on TV – and who’s on TV? Kids!” says Barkan.

“We create a fantasy that can’t be fulfilled. We take the thinnest girl, light her during photo shoots, clean her up with Photoshop. Proportions like hers don’t exist in reality,” he adds.

Although he cites various influences, including the introduction of multi-channel television into Israel, there is no one culprit, he says. Instead, there is a general environment that encourages an unhealthy lifestyle, as exemplified by the drop in the requisite body mass index that he’s witnessed over his 21-year career.

“Here’s Ortal,” he says, referring to a young woman he brings on stage. Ortal is absolutely stunning, tall, long dark hair, self-possessed in heels, low riders and a belly shirt – and in no way fat. That is, not in the real world.

In fashion-land, Barkan says, “any agency would send her away and tell her to lose 3-4 kilos. She stands 178 centimeters, she weighs 63.5 kilos,” – at this point the crowd laughs nervously at the notion that 140 pounds is excessive for a 5 foot 10 inch tall woman… unless she’s a model. “When we talk about a woman, this is what we mean.”

Gal made the decision to lend his name to the project not simply out of friendship, but because the issue is one close to home. His wife is the founder of AVIV, the Israeli non-profit organization that assists people with eating disorders; she suffered from anorexia as a girl and her experience was made the subject of a documentary film. Through her, Gal began coaching sessions for girls with eating disorders.

You don’t have to be thin to be beautiful

“I saw these beautiful girls sitting in front of me, girls I would have seen in the street and thought were gorgeous. And they were really, really ill. In our so-called developed Western civilization, we continue to lead girls to their death and reinforce this industry that says that to be beautiful you have to be thin,” he explains.

Today, Gal called on the fashion industry, including the related advertising and marketing industries, “not to employ sick girls and women. We, the consumers, don’t want sick girls. Let’s change the model. We are the responsible adults, we have to change the situation, and I hope that the Simply U project will be the beginning of this process, get the big advertisers to say ‘no more’; and present women with normal BMI, high self-esteem, healthy and balanced,” he says.

In the Israeli fashion world, Betty Rockaway is legendary as the founder of modeling agency Image and the person who put Israeli models on the international map. She also goes on speaking engagements to schools to talk about the dangers of anorexia. The problem of anorexia, she says, is exacerbated by stylists and photographers who want an androgynous look. “For once, let’s not imitate the US,” she says. “Let’s have the message come from here and have America copy us. We can save lives.”

Barkan’s other partner in Simply U is Rabbi Raphael Mammo of Kiryat Ata, who provided spiritual guidance when he was at his lowest point. Since finding his path, Barkan says, “There hasn’t been a government office door that I haven’t knocked on. I’ve met with officials, Knesset members. But the onslaught of what’s happening is incomprehensible. And the statistics about this catastrophe are out of date.” By his own calculations after meeting with officials, Barkan estimates there are at least 150,000 young women in Israel suffering from anorexia and bulimia.

At the launch of Simply U, Rabbi Mammo called on all advertisers to invest 1 percent of what they invest in advertising to treat the victims. “Then you can change the direction of advertising and advertisers,” he said.