The “No Anorexia” Ad Debate

By Katie, 5:43 am

Warning: This post contains photos that are shocking, potentially triggering, and NSFW. Please prioritize your own health and well-being by refraining from viewing this post if need be.

You may have already heard the tragic news about 28-year-old French model Isabelle Caro. Caro died in November 2010, after suffering from anorexia since she was 13. It’s an incredibly sad story, one that makes my heart ache every time I think of it.


Caro became well-known in 2007 when she appeared on a billboard for the Italian designer Nolita. According to the company, the ad was meant to raise awareness about how horrible of an illness anorexia really is.

I had not seen the ad until I learned of the model’s death a few weeks ago, and since then my feelings on the billboard have wavered back and forth. Here are some of my thoughts, and I hope you share yours as well:

On the one hand…

I admire Caro’s courage in posing for this ad, and her intention of raising awareness and helping others is certainly commendable. Regarding the ad, Caro has been quoted as saying, “I thought this could be a chance to use my suffering to get a message across, and finally put an image on what thinness represents and the danger it leads to – which is death.”

On the other hand…

I think an argument can be made that the companies and designers – both those who made this ad and those who continued to employ Caro as a model even though she said she was sick – were in some ways exploiting her situation for their own gain. The national advertising watchdogs in both Italy and France banned the ad, saying it “commercially exploited the illness” and had “been set up for commercial ends.”

On the one hand…

Certainly the billboard is shocking, and is meant to be. This could be a positive; seeing a naked photo of someone who is basically wasting away could potentially shock people into action. Indeed, the Italian health minister approved of the ad, saying it could help “promote responsibility towards the problem of anorexia.”

On the other hand…

I have to ask: beyond the shock factor, where’s the real message? Obviously people see these photos and recoil; it doesn’t make anorexia look glamorous or anything. But then what’s the next step? Where’s the call to action?

I’m disappointed that there is no mention of where to go for help or to get more information, no direction on how to contribute to the cause. Public awareness is a wonderful thing, but I think it’s important to go one step further.


Obviously I’m torn. I wavered for a long time about whether or not to even post the ad here on my site, not just because it is triggering, but also because I myself don’t want to contribute to the exploitation of Caro’s illness and death. In the end, I decided to post it because I want to open up a dialogue about this, about how society should and should not go about fighting this disease. What do you think?

So please share your thoughts: Is the ad an effective means of raising awareness or not?

51 Responses to “The “No Anorexia” Ad Debate”

  1. Julie says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head (ouch!) with your last “on
    the other hand”. Where is the call to action, the resources,
    anything but the picture? And the picture itself, while speaking
    very clearly, in my opinion is far from ideal. There are many other
    settings and positions and situations that I believe would pass the
    message across more completely. There’s still that posing glamour
    of fashion magazines. She’s still modelling in those pictures.
    Maybe that’s their intention, but someone with a distorted view of
    body image could very well see that and think it’s just another
    fashion ad. Also, if I got it right, the campaign was made by a
    fashion company too? Now, that’s amusing. As you said it, Katie,
    that is the same industry that watched her waste away with no
    action until the end. It’s admirable that she was willing to show
    her body so completely, but doing it with an organization involved
    with awareness and healing would be much more effective than doing
    it for a company whose strength isn’t in passing across messages of
    edification. As for posting the pictures… Maybe you could put
    links to the images instead? As they show up even in the post’s
    preview. Just a suggestion, as probably there are people who could
    be quite triggered by such images. It’s a hard post to make, but
    the discussion is very relevant.

    • Katie says:

      Julie, thank you so much for sharing your perspective. I agree with you that it’s a bit contradictory for this message to be coming from a fashion company, which obviously plays a huge role in promoting the thin ideal. Had it been coming from an organization dedicated to fighting eating disorders, my last point may not have been relevant. It just goes to show the importance of considering the source.

      Also, I appreciate your thoughts on my posting the ad itself. May I ask, did the actual ad show up in the preview? Or just the photo of Caro on the runway? I tried to make sure that the ad itself was “below the fold,” but perhaps it’s different depending on where you’re viewing it?

      • Julie says:

        I’m using Firefox on Ubuntu and from the home page I can see the whole post except comments – all that is written and the three pictures. Under it I can see all other posts, same thing – whole post, images included, except comments.
        I don’t know if it’s just here, though. In some blogs I only see the post title and a few lines. :/

        • Katie says:

          Ok, well I am going to look into it. Thank you for bringing it to my attention!

  2. Wow, this is a tough one.

    If they keep having these no anorexia ads, there going to need more anorexic models.

    Couldnt this give some anorexics something to strive for? To be in these ads?

    • Katie says:

      Interesting point. So perhaps it DOES glamorize the disease a little bit, depending on the perspective of the viewer.

    • Julie says:

      That’s what came to my mind as I said it still looks like she’s modelling. The pictures are horrifying, yes, for *healthy* individuals. But they’re still “too glamorous” and “too posing”, in my humble opinion, to the point that someone with anorexia might even find them… thinspirational, sadly.
      I think they should have done something more along the lines with the brazilian campaign against a cocaine-derived drug called crack: “Crack: Nem Pensar” (rough translation being “crack: don’t even think about it”). Search for “crack nem pensar” on google images to see what I’m talking about. The pictures are rough, dirty and terribly sad.
      Also, Sarah’s comment is *very* relevant. There are several faces to eating disorders, to the point that some who struggle but don’t *look* sick aren’t taken seriously and are refused treatment. Now we can’t hope that a fashion company’s half-assed campaign would address those issues, as they barely managed to do (if at all) what they aimed to do! :/

  3. In the past year or so I have come to a conclusion of sorts: that which I pay attention to grows. And so I try not to pay attention to things that I don’t want to grow. Sometimes I waver because I think that awareness of various issues is important and that if I don’t pay attention to them, then that means I am in denial or perhaps not furthering a cause. A good example (for me) are certain television shows (especially reality TV). Saying that I don’t like a certain show “in public” and/or debating it only brings more attention to it. The same goes for inflammatory blog posts that go viral. In the end, they just get more attention, which equals more money and more power.

    And so, like you, I am just not sure. I have now seen these pictures of Caro in several places. My first instinct is to say that they are more sensational than helpful/effective.

    • I love what she says here…That which I pay attention to grows. So, don’t pay attention to it. That’s great.

      I’m not sure how I feel about this. I see a woman who is wasting away with a terrified look in her eyes. Would someone with anorexia see the same thing? I have no idea.

  4. stories like this sadden me. I hope that some people were (and are) able to benefit from the ads, I’m sorry that she wasn’t able to.

  5. wow. i would definitely say that it might SHOCK people, but i don’t think it does anything to rectify anorexia. the people who are anorexic would just use it as inspiration, and the people who don’t would likely just walk by and not give it a second thought. more than anything what they SHOULD have done to rectify the situation was something to help her, and not just take these photos to help others. i think a woman who has a chance to heal and help others has more of a chance of actually HELPING than an ad that would either be used to inspire or forgotten.

    • Katie says:

      I agree. I was horrified to learn that after she announced to the world that she was gravely ill, fashion companies continued to employ her as a model,and not just for “anorexia awareness” campaigns.

      • Katie says:

        That’s not to say that she shouldn’t be able to work and earn money for herself. I just think that knowing how sick she was, companies should have refrained from using her to sell their products. To me, that is essentially glorifying the illness. I hope that makes sense.

  6. Tamara says:

    I’m in favor of the ad. People with anorexia will be triggered by just about anything…every thin actress, supermodel, or random waif on the street will reinforce the idea that they need to be even thinner. So a couple of sensational billboards is not going to make an impact on them much more than the things in everyday life that keep them sick, but it does make an impact on the public.

    What other high-profile examples are there of anorexia? Calista Flockhart, Mary Kate Olson, Tracy Gold. We poo-poo them with words, but still worship them as gorgeous celebrities. Though very few people with anorexia actually /look/ like they have anorexia, at least this ad shows the public it’s not just a neurosis of pretty rich girls, but a disease that kills.

  7. Sarah says:

    I actually first heard of her on Jessica Simpson’s show when she traveled the world learning about different cultures’ views on pretty. I think the images are shocking. When I first saw the pictures/TV show I was battling anorexia and the images didn’t trigger me, I just told myself I’d never let myself get that far. I’m torn because I think that the pictures kind of create an anorexia “freak show” that seems completely unrealistic. Like Tamara said “very few people with anorexia actually /look/ like they have anorexia” maybe a better PSA would be to feature individuals with anorexia that do not like he/she has anorexia thus showing common EDs are and people you least suspect could be battling an ED.

    • Katie says:

      Sarah, I think you and Tamara are really on to something here. I have struggled in the past because I was sick but didn’t appear to be, so no one was concerned enough to take action on my behalf. I think a campaign that focused on the MANY faces of eating disorders/disordered eating would be worthwhile.

      • Sarah says:

        I completely agree! So many women and men struggle with EDs/disordered eating and I personally think it’s getting worse. You never know who is struggling and people make numerous judgments based on preconceived ideas. For example an overweight individual can have anorexia. But most people viewing her (or him) would never think that she struggled with anorexia due to the idea that anorexic individuals look like poor Isabelle Caro.

  8. I really agree with Sarah and Tamara…

    I think its a good idea, in theory. It shocks people into seeing that (a) anorexia is not that glamorous and (b) its a serious disease. The problem is, that not only is there a lack of information regarding outreach, most people with anorexia never look like that. I struggled with an eating disorder and I can saw that even at my lowest weight, I didn’t look like that. But I was certainly struggling, you know?

    It saddens me that she lost her life, and I think its important to understand that she comprehended what was happening to her, but I guess just felt unable (or something) to change. It also bothers me that the fashion world is behind this ad – I can’t decide if they are “owning up” to something, or if they really have good intentions. If the intentions are true, perhaps they should hire models who aren’t suffering (at least obviously) from anorexia…just a thought.

    • Katie says:

      Excellent point. Even though the fashion company claimed to have good intentions, it’s really tough to identify the true motive. Like you, I’d be more convinced that they truly meant well if they also changed their whole policy about hiring models who are underweight.

  9. So much great discussion here, Katie.

    I think I am with Karen, in that I don’t want to give my attention to something that I don’t support. I do think that these ads could actually hurt more than they could help – I would imagine they just set women up for comparison and promote anorexia in the opposite way it is intended.

  10. I think it definitely portrays the dark side of anorexia…not glamorizing it all but you’re right, there should be more to this ad like a hotline or info about how to get help. Granted, it wasn’t a commercial, just an ad, and I THINK most people are wise enough to get the take home message.

  11. Holly says:

    Wow. This is just shocking, and definitely catches your attention (good or bad).

    I, too, have mixed feelings….I do completely agree that there should be something posted about HOW to get help if needed. If there are trying to get that message out to people, they need to provide some type of outlet for them. I do feel (from Caro’s quote) that her aim in this is to help people. Or at least to increase awareness, which, I’m sure it certainly has.

  12. Sarah says:

    I think this discussion is incredibly interesting and I think each person’s interpretation of the ads and the influence of the ads on each person is incredibly personal. For me, the ads were a wake up call that if I continued with my restriction I could look like Caro. But I like blunt, honest, straight forward therapy like this ad which is incredibly blunt and honest. But other people (my sister especially which has led me to these observations) needs a gentler approach, hates bluntness, and this ad would probably offend her.

    • Katie says:

      Very interesting. It all seems to hinge on the unknowns – the real intentions of the ad, the perspective of the viewer, etc.

  13. Meg says:

    I’d seen this ad and heard about the model passing away and it is so incredibly tragic. At the time I thought what a great idea that Caro could share her story to warn others. I definitely think that eating disorders need to be discussed more in the open and not be so taboo. I don’t know if that will ever truly come to be considering the number of organizations that all but support them (besides modeling, pagents, ballet, horse competing to name a few)

    Then I read your conflicting thoughts and it opened my mind wide up. I hadn’t considered the fact that she was being exploited or the fact there was no call to action. You’re right. There should have been a call to action, a help number, more resources that support solving the issue.

  14. I think that’s a very powerful ad, but like you I’m not sure if it’s positive or negative. I saw a commenter above say that potentially it gave someone with the illness something to strive for, and you said that she was still working for designers even after she admitted she was ill. I think that sends a horrible message. She should have been focusing on getting better, not modeling.
    I would feel better about the ad if there was a number for people to call, or a website they could visit for help. I also think that the designer who did the ad was hoping they would get business for appearing like they “care about their models.” If they really cared about her they should have ensured she got help.
    The images are disturbing, but their a good reminder of the fact that issues like this exist, and we need to be mindful of the struggles others are going through.

  15. I am with you, there are so many ways to look at this campaign that I cant quite decide if I am mad at they exploited her or glad that they used her to drive an important message home.

  16. I honestly don’t think this is an effective way to get the message across. To me, I look at it and think “that is not what I want to look like.” But I know to me 5 years ago, I might look at it and compare myself to how thin she is, and wonder how she did it. It’s potentially triggering. In addition, I don’t think she shouldn’t have been modeling. I also agree with Sarah- people are suffering that don’t look like that and it really does make it a “freak show.”

  17. Lisa says:

    I did hear the news and the photos were so utterly disturbing. How could she let herself get in so deep? It’s just tragic.

    • Katie says:

      It is tragic. I believe she sought treatment several times, but her mental illness was very, very strong.

    • Sarah says:

      For me it was insanely easy to keep getting smaller and smaller (I never got below 100lbs) actually felt similar to gaining weight. It almost seemed that I woke up one day that size and the disease controls your thoughts so thin almost never seems thin enough. Had I not begun to recover I don’t know how small I would have gotten…

  18. Becca says:

    What a sad story.

    I am in particular agreement with your first “on the other hand”. I always find corporations who use charity as a significant marketing exercise somewhat vulgar. I’d respect a company so much more for just handing cash over to charity than using it to sell more stuff – TOMS are such a company that I strongly dislike.

    My biggest issue, however, is that it ignores all the different potential causes of anorexia. I feel that it could really hit home with the type of girl who might become anorexic by dieting and taking it too far.

    However, anorexia as a manifestation of other underlying issues just doesn’t seem like it could be influenced by shock tactics, but by gentle understanding.

    The “freak show” thing is tricky. If someone volunteers to show what has happened to their body as a way of helping, that’s their choice. We wouldn’t be outraged if someone who was addicted to plastic surgery agreed to have photos taken of their botched surgeries; nor if a drug addict wanted to use their experience to help others.

    All are unfortunate cases of mental illness. We must always take care not to be overly precious about any individual kind. No one is more or less acceptable than any other.

    • Katie says:

      Well-said, Becca. I think that many people don’t realize that anorexia and other eating disorders are closely connected to addictions of all sorts. In the end, it’s usually not about the FOOD exactly, but the general public believes that it is. This ad doesn’t do anything to challenge that misperception.

  19. Leslie says:

    So many thoughtful and sensitive points in both your blog and the comments.

    I hope, for Caro’s sake, that this billboard did make her feel like she was raising awareness for eating disorders, rather than being exploited (by the very same industry that turns a blind eye to anorexia).

    One thing I do like about this ad–although I agree it there should have had contact information & the sponsorship is laughable–is that many people simply have NO idea how chronic, relapsing, and life-threatening anorexia can be. The fact remains that anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. Seeing very, very sick people is a shocking visual, but maybe if knew how serious the consequences could be then families and patients would seek help sooner.

    • Katie says:

      You make a great point, Leslie. Most of the people who are seeing this ad on my blog are relatively aware of how serious anorexia is, but that doesn’t mean the general public is as enlightened. Perhaps we’re asking too much from a message that, for many people, may be their first introduction to this illness.

  20. Nicole, RD says:

    You said it perfectly. I don’t what I would add. I’m torn, too. But mostly, just really sad. That is heart-breaking.

  21. Such a powerful post. I agree with your last on-the-other-hand. We need to take the step further.

  22. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Virginia Sole-Smith. Virginia Sole-Smith said: The “No Anorexia” Ad Debate @KatieHWS [...]

  23. Sadly, I think the thing Isabella Caro did the brought the most awareness to anorexia was her death. That is a very powerful message.

    As for the ad, it doesn’t really bother me, but I don’t think it has much effect either. I want venture to say no one wants to look like her in the ad. But just as an alcoholic does start out with a plan to drink a liter of vodka a day, I don’t think most people with eating disorders have the plan to look like that when they start out. There is some point where you are so addicted to it that your body image becomes so distorted and you don’t realize how terrible you look. When I saw that ad, I thought, “Wow, she looks terrible. That is so sad. But I’m never going to look like that…” and then I moved on to something else. But I have looked very sick in the past and didn’t even realize it until later looking back at pictures.

    Anyway, I think it would have been a lot more powerful if they had tied that ‘addiction’ message to the picture.

    • Katie says:

      I agree. The addiction piece of it is so important, but it’s also one of the most misunderstood aspects of the disease. And I have had a similar experience in that I had no idea how sick I looked until almost a year later, looking at photos. It makes me wince now, but at the time I couldn’t see it at all. Excellent, excellent point.

  24. in some ways yes, it can be effective. i think where we have to focus our attention on is “to whom is this effective”. i can see many people who are stuck in their disease thinking that its quite glamorous. she’s gotten attention for the ads and so much media benefits. even tho the photos are gross, they still represent a visual of the lengths at which the human body can go.. which many people definitely strive for. The more a human being see’s pictures of anorexic bodies, the more the mind becomes used to those images and overtime doesnt get shocked when it sees a real life reflection of this. its no different to if one were overweight..if they were always overweight, they would see themselves as normal..but if they suddenly went from skinny to overweight it would be a bigger shock. i hope that made sense lol..but yea basically if the advertisers can limit the amount of underweight images being blasted at us, the more we can visually become accustomed to regular healthy sized bodies.

    ps. im VERY glad you chose to post this!

    • Katie says:

      Thank you, Kelsey! And I understand what you’re saying…we almost become sensitized to certain images or types of bodies if we see them enough. So if we constantly see underweight bodies, it loses its shock value. But if we were constantly seeing healthy-sized bodies, that would become our “normal.” Is that it?

  25. Eliza says:

    I am definitely with Karen, in that I refuse to indulge in
    paying attention to that which I do not want to grow. I also agree
    with others that the ad stopped short of being responsible by not
    putting any support information in it. Along Karen’s line of
    thought, I would much rather time and money be spent on promoting
    images of healthy women. Along the lines of the Dove campaigns.
    Also, and I know this is highly idealistic of me, having the
    fashion and entertainment industry insist on normal body shapes and
    sizes. These are the type of images I would pay attention to,
    because this is the type of society I would like to live

  26. Jessie says:

    Thank you for the courage to post the ad, Katie. I think with the warning at the top of the post, you did exactly right. My first reaction to the ad was “spreading awareness – that’s great!” But, after thinking for a little bit, I’m disturbed by the fact that she is posed exactly like a model – not glorifying, but certainly triggering. And sadly, images of anorexia are not as surprising as they used to be, with the Internet making everything available that you might ever want to see, and so the ad does not have as much impact. The biggest problem, as you so rightly pointed out, is that the ad provides NO support information. Fabulous post, Katie.

    • Katie says:

      Thank you, Jessie! And I so appreciate you sharing your thoughts. I hadn’t thought about the fact that she’s still posed like a model, but you’re so right…it is possible that while I look at the photo and don’t think it’s glamorizing, others might look at it and think the opposite.

  27. jessica says:

    While this image is a strong one, I don’t know how beneficial it is. I almost think that campaigns about anorexia should be directed at the family and friends of those affected by the disorder and give info on where to go for help. Often times the comments used to show worry or concern for someone suffering only fuel the fire more.

    • Katie says:

      Good point. I agree that campaigns directed at family and friends are the most effective.

  28. Alexis says:

    Having gone to eating disorder support groups — the first thing I thought was, non disordered ppl are going to be shocked and recoil but anorexics are going to think she is perfect and want to look like her. I don’t see the point of the campaign.
    In 2009, Vogue magazine told designers they work with not to send size 0 samples anymore, that they will not use them. Also I’ve notice some 1980s models are working again. That was the era of curvier women. I don’t know about the skinny trend nowadays. Women in the public eye are taking a lot of criticism for being ultra thin. I think the trend has turned. The problem is, plus size hasn’t been accepted yet. It may take a few more generations of this overweight epidemic to change fat bigotry.

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