Another day, another dainty dead girl. The premature passing of the French model Isabelle Caro from complications due to anorexia nervosa is as tragic as it is unsurprising. Caro, 28, was the face of the world-famous Nolita campaign, a poster project designed to show dieting teenagers the horrific effects of anorexia on the body.
After the campaign, Caro briefly became the darling of the shock press. Modelling contracts poured in, as did talk-show appearances and a book deal for her short, painful autobiography, The Little Girl Who Didn’t Want to Get Fat. Being the “face” of anorexia won Caro fame, praise and attention – everything she had ever craved. Everything apart from life and health.
When Naomi Wolf wrote The Beauty Myth in 1990, she observed that the rising epidemic of serious eating disorders, which affect an estimated 3 per cent of young women in the developed world, was passing under the radar of the global press. Twenty years later, anorexia has become a global obsession.
One can hardly open a newspaper without reading another gushing interview with a teenager battling the disease, or turn on the television without seeing another gruesome documentary blithely illustrated with pictures of pouting, half-naked waifs, featured just before speculation over what Victoria Beckham didn’t have for breakfast. The press might not admit it but anorexia is in fashion.
The anorexia industry, for which poor Caro was briefly the mascot, is cynical idolatry masquerading as public concern in order to sell magazines. The anorexic has become the famished saint of late-capitalist femininity: beautiful, vulnerable and prepared to risk everything to conform to society’s standards. Hers is a self-defeating rebellion against the sexist surveillance of patriarchal culture.
Over two decades of gory “awareness raising”, real public understanding of eating disorders has barely improved. Nor have treatment standards – more than 50 per cent of anorexics never recover. The poster campaign in which Caro was involved backfired spectacularly because it was based on the assumption that anorexic women starve themselves to look more “beautiful”, rather than because of any deeper trauma.
Naked pictures of her still appear on “pro-anorexia” websites, which are designed to give “thinspiration” to self-starvers. As the anorexia industry expands, people with less glamorous but equally destructive disorders such as bulimia nervosa and compulsive overeating are deliberately ignored – as are the many sufferers who happen to be male, poor, non-white or simply unphotogenic.
As a former anorexia sufferer, I have been approached to write the woeful story of my teenage illness, not once, but several times. I refused because the nation’s bookstores are already overflowing with sob stories stuffed with grisly details of vomiting techniques. When I was sick, I used to read those books for weight-loss tips.
In a society where anxiety about consumption has become the defining collective neurosis, it is, perhaps, inevitable that the image of the anorexic should fascinate us. We are perplexed by the self-starver’s ability to transcend the needs of the flesh and, at the same time, compelled by it. More importantly, the fashion for anorexia taps into an increasingly popular loathing for female flesh – and fear of female flesh is fear of female power.
One thing is for sure: the anorexia industry has little to do with concern for women’s welfare. If we truly want to protect young women from the siren song of self-starvation, it’s not enough to persuade them that “skinny isn’t beautiful” – we must communicate the conviction that all women deserve to take up space, to nourish ourselves, and to be large and imperfect and unashamedly powerful.