The Furor Over an Anorexia Ad

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Photographer Oliviero Toscani's photograph on a billboard. NOTE: Photograph edited for content

The fashion world is all about timing, finding that perfect moment to launch the Next Big Thing. So it's not surprising that the upstart Italian clothing designer Nolita chose to unveil its latest ad campaign just in time for Europe's current round of catwalk shows for the spring-summer collections. But rather than politely join the parties in Milan and Paris, it has crashed them.

With a shocking photograph of a naked anorexic woman, shot by Oliviero Toscani, the eternal enfant terrible of fashion photography, Nolita's is the latest attempt to employ a formula that Toscani helped invent with Benetton in the 1980s: the use of provocative, socially conscious images to help hawk products. (And, in theory, the images attempt to accomplish the inverse as well: using consumerism to try to raise public awareness.) In the past, Toscani has used photographs of AIDS victims and death-row inmates in Benetton ads. But this time, the message is also targeted at the very industry that is selling the goods. The problem of eating disorders has long plagued the fashion world, with the proliferation of super-thin models whom critics say not only harm themselves, but establish unhealthy role models for young female consumers. Criticism peaked last year when a 21-year-old Brazilian model died from the effects of anorexia.

While public figures and several designers in Italy expressed support for Nolita's ad campaign during the Milan fashion week, the campaign has also drawn criticism as runways are set to open in Paris this weekend. Didier Grumbach, head of the French Couture Federation, lashed out at the fashion house. "I find this absolutely scandalous," he told the AFP. "Winning notoriety through people's illness is painful. What we're seeing here is sensationalism by a label, to the detriment of an extremely serious social problem."

The stark picture of the emaciated French-born actress Isabelle Caro — who stands 5 feet, 5 inches tall (1.65 m) and weighs just 70 pounds (32 kg) — is accompanied by the words: "No Anorexia." Caro, now 27, says she has suffered from the disorder since she was a teenager. In a statement on its website, Nolita defended the ad, which has appeared on giant billboards and leading newspapers in Italy. "Toscani literally stripped his subject, to show everyone through this nude body the reality of this illness, which in the majority of cases is caused by stereotypes caused by the fashion world." Toscani, who says he learned about eating disorders while working in the fashion industry, dismissed suggestions made by an anti-anorexia group in Italy that girls would look to Caro as someone to emulate. "Looking at my ad, girls with anorexia would say to themselves that they have to stop dieting," he said. "When you do something extreme, there are always people who oppose it. It shouldn't be the photos that shock, but the reality." The fashion industry has grown accustomed to watching its waiflike, barely clad female models slither down the runway. Toscani hopes they never look the same way again.