The Californian bill AB-2539 – aimed at reducing eating disorders among models – cleared its first legislative hurdle on 6 April, following efforts in several countries to fight extreme thinness in an industry that pressures models to lose weight. The measure would require the state to develop health standards for models and regard them as employees of the brands they represent.

"This gives fashion models all the protections available to workers in California. This includes worker's compensation, unemployment insurance, disability insurance and protections against harassment and discrimination," said the bill's author, state Assemblyman Marc Levine, a Democrat who represents the Marin County suburbs of San Francisco.

Last year, France banned excessive thinness in models, partly in response to the 2010 death of Isabelle Caro, a French fashion model. At the age of 28, she died from anorexia-based complications after posing for a photographic campaign to raise awareness about the illness.

Israel enacted a similar measure in 2013, while Italy and Spain rely on voluntary codes of conduct to protect models. The bill passed the California Assembly Labor and Employment Committee on 6 April. It must be approved by additional committees and the full legislature before it can go to Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, who has not mentioned if he would sign it.

At the committee hearing, former fashion model and activist Sara Ziff, wept as she recounted abuses she endured as a teenage model, including pressure to strip for photographers.

"In what is extensively an unregulated industry, pressure to engage in risky behaviour are all too real – and by risky behaviour I mean starvation dieting, forfeiting compulsory schooling and giving in to sexual demands from powerful male agents and clients. For many young models working today, bowing to these pressures can feel less like a choice than a prerequisite for employment," said Ziff, 32, who founded the group Model Alliance.

By requiring that models be considered employees, she said, the state would protect them from sexual abuse and exploitation, and the risks of developing an eating disorder. The Association of Talent Agents has called the bill unworkable. A licensing requirement for modelling agencies is redundant because California talent agencies are already licensed, President Karen Stuart said.