It was reported several days ago that Isabelle Caro, the French model whose struggle with anorexia became public several years ago, has died. Caro shocked the world when she appeared, her body naked and wasted, in a 2007 anti-anorexia billboard campaign. She died on November 17th, but her family did not report her death until late December. She was twenty-eight years old.
The news of Caro’s death filled me with sadness. Caro suffered from anorexia for so long – more than half her life – and was courageous enough to let the world see that suffering, so that others might be saved from the kind of mental and physical anguish that she endured.
But the news also made me angry. It made me angry because the world that Caro lived in, the world she leaves behind, is one in which a woman who has been starving to death for half her life is considered professionally beautiful. It’s a world in which the kind of mental and physical pain Caro experienced is glorified and richly rewarded – just for women, never for men. It’s a world in which designers, manufacturers and magazines turn a profit on the suffering of models like Caro and of consumers who are told that they should look like her. As much sympathy as I feel for Caro, I am disgusted by those designers who continued to employ her even when it was clear – when she had announced to the world – that she was very, very sick. I am revolted by the people who hired her as a judge on France’s Next Top Model, who presented her as an arbiter of beauty and a role model, not long after she appeared naked on a billboard with an open wound on her tailbone.
I become even angrier when I stop to think about the backdrop against which the media coverage of Caro’s death is happening. It’s perfectly reasonable for us to shake our heads sadly at Caro’s death and to lament the illness that caused it. Media coverage of her death should acknowledge the tragic scope and severity of eating disorders and of course, her suffering should serve as a cautionary tale – she wanted it to.
But let’s not forget that today is January 4th. It’s the time of year when women are told, by every mainstream women’s media outlet there is, that we must lose weight. This is a culture in which women are told, from the moment they’re old enough to understand complete sentences, that they’re not beautiful, not valuable, unless they’re skinny. That constant, unrelenting message gets louder throughout the year – as summer approaches, for example – and at certain points in a woman’s life – her wedding or immediately post-childbirth – but it’s never louder than it is right now. The start of a new year is the time to start a diet, to work out compulsively and without pleasure, to lose weight until you look like a model, until you look like a Black Swan, until… Until what? When are we thin enough? When are we too thin? When did people finally decide that Caro was too thin, too sick, to be held up as a figure of female beauty?
Never. Even after that 2007 poster, designers hired Caro, and women who looked like her, to sell their clothes. Bear in mind this January, as you listen to people talk about their New Year’s resolution to drop ten or twenty or thirty pounds, as you leaf through the magazine weight loss plans and the discount gym membership offers, that no matter what you do, no one can ever lose enough weight to satisfy the demands of this culture.
You will never be thin enough. There will always be more calories to cut out, more minutes to be spent on the treadmill. Because in this culture, sickness is beautiful. In this culture, anguish is profit. In this culture, a woman is never thin enough. Not even when she’s starving to death.