Ugly truth about wanting to be thin
The tragic death of the 'face of anorexia' is a warning to all wannabe super-skinny women, writes Aoife Drew
AS the New Year commences, many of us are desperate to shed the excess pounds. Socially, it's perfectly acceptable to speak about a new diet, a health-kick plan to cut out calories or a new exercise regime. Why not, if it's a genuine attempt to improve health?
Because, sometimes, good intentions can go too far. And that is where the danger lies.
Here in Paris, the city where women can "never be too rich or too thin", pharmacies are heaving with slimming aids, magic potions claiming to flush out toxins and a variety of protein-based bars and shakes. After a Christmas season stuffed with cake, chocolate and carbs, I decided I would join my Gallic girlfriends and try one of these remedies. But I was stopped in my tracks by a magazine poster announcing the death of Isabelle Caro, 28, the French "face of anorexia".
Caro was a model and actress famous for her struggle with the disorder. She grabbed headlines in 2007 with a controversial anti-anorexia billboard campaign for Italian fashion brand Nolita, entitled 'No Anorexia'.
The shocking photos, which were shot by Oliveri Toscani (famous for the Benetton ad campaigns in the Eighties and Nineties), were taken to help dissuade women from starving themselves. The results were nothing short of horrific and were even banned in several countries: they intrigued and terrified the public in equal measure.
With bones poking out from inside flaky skin, vertebrae protruding and huge eyes staring out from her narrow face, Caro looked like a concentration camp survivor. At the time of the ad campaign, she weighed five stone, for a height of 5ft 5in.
Her fight with the illness began at 13 and stemmed from what she once described as a 'troubled' childhood. Her mother suffered from depression and her father was frequently absent. Caro said her anorexia was in part due to trying to stay small for her mother who reportedly wanted Isabelle to stay little and not grow up, a subject she touched on in her autobiography The Little Girl Who Didn't Want to Get Fat.
At her lowest ebb, in 2006, she slipped into a coma. She weighed only 3 stone 13lb and was not expected to survive, but astounded doctors by pulling through.
It was this low point which drove her to get help and to aid fellow sufferers. "My anorexia causes death," she explained in an interview. "It is everything but beauty, the complete opposite. It is an unvarnished photo, without make-up. The message is clear -- I have psoriasis, a pigeon chest, and the body of an elderly person."
In the years that followed, Caro made a partial recovery. Although she still suffered from a variety of anorexia-related complaints, she reached the (still extremely low) weight of six stone and continued her battle to help others -- she served as a member of the jury on the TV show Top Model France and cautioned prospective models on the dangers of dieting.
She tried to challenge the norm that dictates 'thin is beautiful'. Singer Jessica Simpson last year interviewed Caro for her TV show The Price of Beauty. She was moved to tears at Caro's story and said, "I think it's important for women to know that the skinnier you are, it doesn't make you more beautiful."
However, sufferers of the illness are unable to believe this. An expert on eating disorders, Steven Levenkron, regards the condition as having distinct stages. It begins with the desire to be thin. When it takes a foothold, it moves to what he calls the 'pseudo-identity' stage. This stage is characterised by "the anorexic's new sense of power, of her notoriety, which has a deepening conviction that she is on the right path".
This seems to have been the case with Caro. Her friend Kim Warini told AOL News, "I think she was trapped in a vicious cycle. Those pictures made her famous and in some ways that may have been hard to give up." Tragically, the attention she drew from her anorexia seems to have reinforced the illness, giving her a feeling of identity, or purpose.
Anorexia is both a difficult disease to treat and to recover from. Isabelle Caro once said: "If I can put my years of suffering to good use then my life will not have been pointless." If her campaigning saves one person from anorexia, her struggle will not have been in vain.