Back in the late 1980s when I was an undergraduate, eating disorders were just starting to get attention on college campuses. At least one friend took a leave of absence because of an eating disorder. I became active in my college’s Women Center, which sponsored support groups about students with concerns about eating disorders and body image. We thought we were ‘raising awareness’ and making a difference.
Then I read about the death of the 28-year-old French model, Isabelle Caro, and I’m not feeling so sure.
Caro was said to become the ‘international face of anorexia’ when she allowed her severely underweight body to be photographed nude for an Italian advertising campaign for the fashion label Nolita in 2007. Caro was 5 feet, 4 inches, and weighed some 59 pounds. She had been anorexic since she was 13 years old.
The ads were displayed on billboards and newspapers as Fashion Week started in Milan. As the December 30th New York Times describes them:
Ms. Caro’s face was emaciated, her arms and legs mere sticks, her teeth seemingly too large for her mouth. In large letters, “No — Anorexia” ran across the top of the photograph.
The photo was taken by Oliviero Toscani, celebrated in the fashion industry for his Benetton campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s, which included such provocative images as a close-up of a man dying from AIDS and prisoners on death row.
The Nolita campaign came as the fashion industry was under a spotlight over anorexia, after a 21-year-old Brazilian model, Ana Carolina Reston, died from it in 2006.
And it’s hard to say what kind of ‘awareness’ such ads—which were eventually banned by an Italian advertising watchdog agency, on the grounds that they exploited anorexia— raised. Some young women with an eating disorder might see the ads and conclude they had to look like Caro. From the Guardian:
Some groups working with anorexics warned that it did a disservice to those afflicted. Images of Caro appeared on pro-anorexia websites; yesterday, one posted a notice about her death and a photo of her, with the caption “die young, stay pretty”.
And, on Jezebel:
Sometimes we throw around the word “anorexic” without realizing what we’re really dealing with and talking about; Isabelle Caro made it painfully clear.
In the past years, I’ve noted the adjective ‘anorexic’ used in some very troubling ways . Anorexia is a serious, life-threatening psychiatric disorder and those who suffer from it, men as well as women, suffer indeed. More women have been affected by eating disorders in adulthood and even midlife, as noted in a 2008 Guardian article and one in the 2009 New York Times noted. Just because someone starts eating regularly again does not mean he or she is cured.
It’ll be 2011 tomorrow, twenty-one years since I graduated from college, and I wonder how much things have really changed for women? What kind of awareness about anorexia and eating disorders do we really need?
Read more: womens rights
Photo by by Janine.
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