It was a shocking one-two punch : first anorexic model Isabelle Caro died in a French hospital, then the distraught mother killed herself . Coming so soon after her daughter’s November death, Marie Caro’s January suicide has reopened the debate about the causes of anorexia. Is imitation of ultra-thin models to blame – or are girls like her stunted by clinging mothers who won’t let go ? In interviews and a celebrity memoir, Isabelle didn’t hesitate to blame Mom for wanting her to stay a child, yet she herself will be remembered as the skinny model who denounced the fad for skinny models. In an unsettling way, anorexia became her ticket to stardom.
Isabelle Caro won fame by posing naked for a controversial 2007 advertising campaign about the dangers of anorexia sponsored by Italian fashion label Nolita. Timed to coincide with the unveiling of spring-summer collections on the Milan catwalks, the campaign was conceived as a wake-up call to the fashion industry and a warning to girls who might be tempted to imitate impossibly slim models. The sight of Isabelle’s emaciated frame was supposed to show that extreme thinness is repulsive, not sexy.
“The message is clear,” Isabelle said at the time. “I have dry, sore skin, sagging [breasts], the body of an old woman.” Alas, the message was not clear at all. Pictures of the 20-something’s wizened body and big green eyes turned up on so-called “pro-ana” sites run by militant anorexics, and Italian associations devoted to helping victims of eating disorders were quick to criticize the campaign as misguided.
The advertisement’s message was supposed to be : “You don’t want to look like this.” But the medium undercut the message. By boldly displaying a stick-thin body on huge billboards or in two-page newspaper spreads, the campaign inadvertently made another statement : “Look like this and you can be famous.” In a celebrity-obsessed culture, too many people would do anything to see themselves up on that billboard – even adopt a look that is literally “to die for.”
Isabelle Caro’s theatrical agent said she had “wanted at all costs to be a model” but got nowhere because of her sickly appearance. The Nolita campaign was her big break. It brought her documentary work and made her a hot item on the talk show circuit. She was featured on “The Price of Beauty” with Jessica Simpson and even served as a judge on “France’s Next Top Model.” Her agent feared she was doing more interviews than her frail health could take. “I shouted at them. I said it was dangerous to make her run all over the world like that.” Isabelle ultimately collapsed after returning from filming a television series in Japan. A “pro-ana” site ran her photo with the caption “Die young, stay pretty.”
If the urge to imitate is so powerful that young women are led astray by images of too-thin models, it’s no solution to show them one who is even thinner. As every parent learns, “Do what I say, not what I do” is a losing educational strategy. Young people imitate behavior.
By preaching against anorexia while keeping her own weight dangerously low, Isabelle Caro was telling her followers, “Take me as your guide, but don’t imitate me !” The paradox behind this type of mixed message was precisely diagnosed by Stanford’s René Girard, who names it the “mimetic double bind.” Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, anyone is happy to attract followers, but if they imitate too successfully, they soon become a threat to the very person they took as their model. No one likes to be beaten at their own game. Hence the contradictory message : “Do as I do… just don’t outdo me !”
Imitation morphs imperceptibly into rivalry – this is Girard’s great insight, and he applies it brilliantly to competitive dieting.  There’s no use searching for some mysterious, deep-seated psychological explanation, Girard writes : “The man in the street understands a truth that most specialists prefer not to confront. Our eating disorders are caused by our compulsive desire to lose weight.” We all want to lose weight because we know that’s what everyone else wants – and the more others succeed in shedding pounds, the more we feel the need to do so, too.
Girard is not the first to highlight the imitative or mimetic dimension of eating disorders and their link to the fashion for being thin, but he emphasizes an aspect others miss : the built-in tendency to escalation that accompanies any fashion trend : “Everybody tries to outdo everybody else in the desired quality, here slenderness, and the weight regarded as most desirable in a young woman is bound to keep going down.”
In the universal weight-loss contest, anorexics are the “winners,” with often-tragic results. But, Girard explains, it is hard to convince an unhealthily underweight girl that she is doing something wrong :
“She interprets all attempts to help her as envious conspiracies of people who would like to cheat her out of her painfully acquired victory, being unable to match it. She is proud to fulfill what is perhaps the one and only ideal still common to our entire society, slenderness.”
Isabelle Caro did know she was perilously slender, but in the end she was unable to renounce the hard-won status her illness brought her. Her friend and colleague Kim Warani told AOL News that she seemed “trapped in a vicious cycle. Those pictures made her famous and the center of attention and in some ways that may have been hard to give up.”
After she died, the man who photographed her for the Nolita ad made some stunningly blunt comments. “I don’t have happy memories of Isabelle,” said Oliviero Toscani. “She was very selfish and full of herself, right up to her death,” imagining she was a successful model and actress when “her only talent was to be anorexic.”
According to Isabelle’s stepfather, Toscani’s heartless remarks helped push her mother Marie over the edge. She already felt an enormous burden of guilt, he said – not, as one might guess, about her daughter’s illness, but about sending her to the hospital ! While the parents charged the doctors with mishandling her treatment, Warani said she “died from the effects of being so weakened by anorexia” after having “lost a lot of weight again.”
By choosing to follow her daughter into the grave, Marie Caro unwittingly lent credence to the notion that she was pathologically attached to Isabelle. So what about the idea that this was a mother who just didn’t want her daughter to grow up ? How does that jibe with a mimetic reading of the facts ?
Well, perhaps staying 12 years old has also become a fashion to imitate. Isn’t that a key element of Nolita’s appeal ? The name may be borrowed from a newly chic NY neighborhood, but in the context of sexy clothes for young women, it inevitably conjures up the quintessential underage seductress : Lolita. Of course, by replacing “Lolita” with “No-lita,” the designers get to have it both ways : they can always claim they’re just saying “No” to exploiting Lolita-like models. The Toscani ad combined both No’s : “No-anorexia, No-l-ita.” Once again, however, the message was ambiguous, and not only because the two No’s were scrawled in lipstick-pink : since when is it a turn-off to be told something is a no-no ? The lure of the forbidden is part of what makes Lolitas seductive in the first place.
Toscani himself has long cultivated a “bad boy” image. Even before the Nolita campaign, he was already notorious for using shock photos of AIDS victims or death-row inmates to promote causes while selling clothing. When the furor over the anorexia ad erupted, Time  called him the “eternal enfant terrible” of fashion photography : literally, the eternal unruly child, the naughty boy who never grew up. But why should anyone want to grow up when our culture rewards bad behavior with fame and fortune ?
Mark Anspach is a former Imitatio Fellow and the author of Œdipe mimétique (L’Herne, 2010). He has just published a new collection of essays by René Girard, Géométries du désir (L’Herne, 2011).