*Trigger warning: this article may be distressing to people with experience of eating disorders, particularly Anorexia Nervosa*
Isabelle Caro brought the harrowing visual reality of anorexia to Milan Fashion week with Italian fashion house Nolita’s ‘No Anorexia Campaign’ in 2007. The controversial advert, shot by photographer Oliviero Toscani, was splashed across billboards and newspapers in Milan, showing Caro’s emaciated figure which she had arranged into typical fashion model poses complete with doe-eyed stare. The intention of the advert, according to Caro, was to show how dangerous the illness is, while also holding the fashion world responsible for its part in encouraging an unhealthy body image.
A Google search of the model and actress’ name reveals that this is largely how she will be remembered; as the face of the eating disorder which would eventually lead to her death at age 28. FEMMEfille, a documentary created by Kiki Allgeier, looks behind and beyond Caro’s illness to the experiences that shaped her and, particularly, her troubled childhood. The film reinforces that Isabelle was a woman with dreams, ambitions, strength and passion, but whose life was continually defined in terms of her illness, from her time in the fashion industry to the acting roles she was given which were usually that of the frail woman or suffering patient. Caro claimed that, had she the choice, she would want to play a woman who is ‘strong and a fighter’, which she describes as ‘the total opposite of me’.
Caro clearly liked to look beautiful, and even invented a childhood alter-ego or imaginary friend of sorts, named Rebecca, whom Caro described as being much prettier than her. Modern beauty standards have a lot to answer for in terms of the growing rate of those suffering from eating disorders today with their stress on the importance of slim bodies. In the media, particularly in the world of fashion, slim, white bodies are usually the only bodies we see represented. Women are encouraged to shrink themselves. There is only so much space were are permitted to take up. While the media pushes and shames women into desiring to be slimmer and slimmer, a whole virtual world on the internet continues to grow steadily dedicated to those who are ‘pro-anorexia’, or ‘pro-ana’ for short. ‘Pro-ana’ websites, usually set up by and aimed at young women and girls, post ‘thinspiration’ pictures and tips on how to achieve dramatic weight loss. One of the many blogs I discovered included tips such as ‘watch people eat and note how disgusting it looks’ and ‘spin in circles , it will make you too dizzy and nauseous to eat’ with the tagline ‘stay strong and skinny! Starve on’ ending each post. Food is both the entire subject of these websites and the biggest taboo word; the life of the author of each post seems dominated by it. These websites claim that being thin means being attractive, and one can never be skinny enough.
But eating disorders are too complex to be reduced down solely to a desire to be beautiful and Allgeier’s film attempts to assert this. Those suffering from eating disorders are sometimes seen as entirely narcissistic, self-obsessed, image-conscious people – the fairly recent move to ban ‘ultra-thin’ models from catwalks in France seemed to place the blame more upon the models than the industry – but Caro was a self-described artistic, creative woman, who claimed to want to recover from her illness because, as she claims quite simply, ‘I love life’. Her anorexia did not erase her personality and functioned in her life as something much more than a desire to be beautiful. The issue of value seems crucial in terms of eating disorders. If the ‘pro-ana’ sites claim that being thin means being attractive and being attractive is the most important thing of all, then this suggests that the people creating these sites and those who follow them believe that a person’s entire value rests on being attractive. Indeed, society emphasises that a woman’s value rests largely on her attractiveness. Caro, by her own account, had an extremely difficult childhood with a stiflingly protective mother who effectively imprisoned her daughter in her home from the age of four, believing that fresh air makes children grow faster. She did not want her daughter to grow, and this obsession became Caro’s obsession. Caro’s 2008 biography was titled ‘The Little Girl Who Didn’t Want to Get Fat’; it seems she was a little girl who believed herself to have value only in being petite and slim.
In the documentary, Caro talks about her anorexia in an open and honest way as an illness, not a choice. She talks of her trips to hospital, having to be drip fed, claiming that these experiences are ‘very sad’ to talk about. There is no sense of the fierce achievement ‘pro-ana’ blogs claim not eating can bring. If Caro’s story teaches us anything, it is firstly to recognise and hold accountable society’s – and particularly, the fashion industries – penchant with being thin. That ‘thin’ is too often seen as synonymous with ‘attractive’ and thus connotative of value means that more and more people, especially young people, develop unhealthy obsessions with weight. While models who may already struggle with eating problems as Caro did are told they are not skinny enough, worsening their condition or leading to the development of one, and women in turn are told to aspire to the body image of these models, we cannot hope to truly curb the rate of eating disorders. But her story also teaches us that the causes of eating disorders go beyond the desire to be thin and beautiful and are far more complex, as are the people that suffer from them.
Eating disorders are illnesses which can often stem from issues of control, self-worth, or perhaps develop out of psychological trauma or existing psychological problems. To see sufferers as purely narcissistic is to deny the complexity of their illness. Caro saw her battle with anorexia as just that; a real fight between a strong woman and an illness that tried to defeat her, reacting against the fact that, in her illness, the stress was entirely placed on her body and her image, not her self; after being interviewed by a particularly intrusive journalist, she shouted ‘I am not a circus attraction!’ The total fascination with the body image of women in particular seems to be what Caro critiques above all; as a model, an actress and a sufferer of anorexia, her appearance was everything to society. It is only when we see women as complex people with histories and problems and often, real strength and conviction, that we really begin to understand eating disorders.
To read more about FEMMEfille, visit the documentary’s website here.