She is the poster girl with a difference: at 27, the French actress Isabelle Caro weighs 31kg (4st 12lb) and has suffered from anorexia for 15 years. She appeared naked on billboards across Italy yesterday to raise awareness of the illness, but also to promote a fashion label.
Her emaciated body, framed by the controversial photographer Oliviero Toscani in a campaign to coincide with Milan Fashion Week, appears alongside the slogan “No Anorexia” and the brand name Nolita, a label intended for young women.
Fashionistas hailed the poster campaign as a turning point but health experts were outraged and voiced fears that teenage girls might be encouraged to “compete for extreme thinness” after seeing the images.
“I’ve hidden myself and covered myself for too long. Now I want to show myself fearlessly, even though I know my body arouses repugnance,” Caro told the Italian edition of Vanity Fair. She said that her own troubled childhood had provoked her illness, even if some in the fashion world conceded that stereotypes promoted by the industry itself were to blame.
Toscani, who is renowned for his provocative Benetton campaigns, which have shown death-row inmates, copulating horses and an Aids sufferer, said: “I’ve been looking into the problem of anorexia for years. Who’s responsible? Communication in general? Television? Fashion?”
He found it interesting, he said, that a fashion company had finally understood the gravity of the problem and had taken the risk of such a campaign.
The posters are funded by the owner of Nolita, Flash & Partners, an Italian clothing company based in Padua. It said that its aim was “to use the naked body to show everyone the reality of this illness, caused in most cases by the stereotypes imposed by the world of fashion”.
The Toscani advert is supported by leading figures in fashion, including Giorgio Armani, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, and by Livia Turco, the Italian Health Minister. Armani denied that the fashion industry was to blame, saying: “Even people who take no notice of fashion get anorexic.” Dolce & Gabbana said: “Anorexia has nothing to do with fashion but is a psychiatric problem.”
However, Fabiola De Clercq, head of the Italian Association for the Study of Anorexia, said that the image was “pointless and damaging”. She said that the advert might encourage young women to imitate Caro and “compete for extreme thinness”, and that the actress should be in hospital. Camillo Loriedo, head of eating disorders at the Umberto I Hospital in Rome, agreed that some young girls might want to emulate Caro.
The organisers of Milan Fashion Week said that the poster was in line with their own campaign against anorexia.
Last year Milan and Madrid banned girls with a body mass index of below 18 from its catwalks as part of a new code of conduct. Last week, a report coinciding with London Fashion Week made recommendations to combat the “size zero” phenomenon, including barring models under 16 from the catwalk and requiring models to pass medical checks.
Tiziana Maiolo, the Milan city council official in charge of promoting fashion, said: “I don’t think men want to see skeletal women, and I want to say to women with fuller figures that there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.” However, she said that the Toscani poster was “pornographic”.
Riccardo Dalle Grave, head of an Italian medical association dealing with eating disorders, condemned the use of Caro’s naked body for publicity purposes. “You can die from this disease,” he said. “If they really want to prevent it, it would be better to help young women to accept a variety of body measurements and understand that beauty comes in all sizes.”