The blogosphere is buzzing about Milan Fashion Week, and not just about whether Miuccia Prada's latest collection is based on art nouveau jugs. It's about an ad campaign for the Nolita brand (owned by Flash & Partners) featuring a naked 25-year-old French model who weighs "4 stone 12 lbs." That's 31 kilos, as in 68 pounds.
Yes, the model -- Isabelle Caro -- is anorexic. In fact, that's the point of the ads, which have appeared on billboards and in newspapers throughout Italy. They plainly show Caro's shockingly emaciated body -- eyes sunken, bones protruding -- beneath the slogan "No anorexia." And next to, of course, the big, pink-lettered brand name Nolita.
On her own blog, Caro says she has suffered from anorexia since she was 13. And in a Vanity Fair interview to be published today, she says, inspiringly/depressingly: "I hid myself and covered myself up for too long. Now I want to show myself without fear even though I know my body is repugnant."
What to make of this? For one thing, recall that it's not the first effort by the fashion industry to police its own waif factor. Milan now requires models to carry certificates attesting to their general health; Madrid has set minimums for body-mass index. To the degree that it's yet another a call to the industry to quit doing things like telling Luisel Ramos (1984-2006) that she'd make it even bigger if she were even thinner, it certainly couldn't hurt. And as shocking as Caro's thinness is, it's not worlds different from other fashion images over the years that have made us gasp and fret. Simply showcasing such an image as not OK: That couldn't hurt either.
But when it comes to civilians, could it actually serve as some sort of deterrent? Doubt it. Spend five minutes on MySpace, and you'll see that the scary-skinny model images used elsewhere in anorexia-awareness PSAs are the very same that anorexia sufferers use as "thinspiration." But by the same token, to suggest that thin models or the fashion industry itself causes anorexia (as Flash & Partners did in a statement) is an enormous oversimplification. Are thin models part of a culture -- a diet-tip-tastic culture in which just about everyone on TV and in movies except "the fat ones," which now evidently includes Britney Spears, happens to be superskinny -- that helps validate and reinforce anorexic behavior? I believe so. (Note: We're hating on the culture here, not the thin people themselves.) But that culture contributes just as much to the grayer areas of poor body image and general food weirdness. Anyone suffering from that might look at Caro and say, "Eek, I don't want to look like that ... but [turning to photo of Vanessa Hudgens] I wouldn't mind looking like that." (Likewise: Caro's thinness is truly extreme. I wonder if your average disordered eater might think, "Well, you can't see my ribs, so I must be OK. Just a Diet Sprite, please.") So this helps whom?
There's also a basic shock-and-gawk factor here that just makes me uncomfortable. And let's not forget, at the end of the day, Flash & Partners is still using a scary-skinny model to sell clothes.