Is anorexia a feminist issue?

// 27 September 2007

Is anorexia caused, or exacerbated, or linked in any way to images of rail-thin catwalk models, actresses and other women who are held up to us as examples of what it means to be an attractive woman? We’ve considered this issue recently at The F Word, with Laurie Penny’s recent article arguing that the ‘size zero’ debate has nothing to do with eating disorders.

Well, a recent advertising campaign by the Italian clothing label Nolita, which has seen the naked image of self-confessed anorexic Isabelle Caro plastered on billboards across Italy, has prompted even more debate.

Check out the Scotsman’s coverage here (disclaimer: it also quotes me giving my two pennies worth) of the back and forth over the issue. As well as questions over whether the image will incite those with eating disorders further along the road to starvation, this taps into a wider debate about whether anorexia is, in fact, a feminist issue at all.

On one level, I would say it is. After all, you only need to look at the glee with which ‘women’s’ magazines seize on the opportunity to berate women for not only being too fat, but also too thin. The debate about eating disorders clearly taps into something noxious in our culture.

But are eating disorders themselves caused by the pressure put on all women to fit into a certain, very specific, dress size and portion of space?

Caro herself does not blame the fashion industry for her disease, from which she began to suffer at the age of 13, owing, she says, to a “difficult childhood”. She seems sincere in her hope that allowing her emaciated naked body to go on public display will help dispel any “romantic” ideas young girls might have about the condition.

The young Frenchwoman, who writes a blog about her illness, says: “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. I want to recover because I love life and the riches of the universe. I want to show young people how dangerous this illness is.”

As I told the Scotsman, to me the most troubling thing about the Italian ad campaign is that it frames anorexia as something that makes you look bad. Even Caro talks about her body arousing “repugnance”.

On the one hand, I think this is a message that probably will give many women, who accept the concept that a woman can never be too thin, pause for thought. (Whether it would help someone with a genuine eating disorder is another question.) But doesn’t this just replace one type of so-called perfect way for a woman to look (as thin as possible) with a different one (thin, but not too thin)?

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