Picture Vs. Mind

A Well-Intentioned Ad Campaign Completely Underestimates the Mind of an Anorectic Girl

On September 23, 2007 several billboards went up across Italy during Milan’s fashion week while promoting the fashion brand Nolita. In this campaign against Anorexia Nervosa, the disease of self- starvation, Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani turned French actress Isabelle Caro into the new spokeswomen combating anorexia, displaying her emaciated body as a warning:

“Look!,” it says, “this is reality” throughout Italy.

Most of these billboards removed several hours after their appearance, seen as counterproductive in the effort against this serious disorder.  But the campaign was re-launched in May 2008, in conjunction with the Italy’s upcoming Fashion Week, financed by the Italian clothing company Flash & Partners. Clearly some still think this approach will do some good.

The reality is, however, the campaign completely underestimated the mind of the anorectic girl.

The anorectic doesn’t see what we see. She finds these images desirable. She wants to look like that. And while the pictures are powerful, they do not warn away young women who have lost their capacity for disgust.

Anorexic girls swallow the image, making it their own.  They are the ones who will stop at nothing to look like Caro: They’ll take an extra dose of diet pills, subtract another 100 calories from their already meager “meals,” and add an additional two hours to their brutal exercise regimes.

These are the girls, the ones belonging to that “0.6% of increasingly prevalent anorectics” and the “hundreds supporting the tight knit pro-ana community via websites,” described by Janice Saunders, a recovered anorectic and supporter of anti-ana sites, the ones that will find themselves in the Emergency Room with cardiac arrest, or organ degeneration.

From there, they will be transferred to a psychiatric ward, as this is considered the “mental illness with the highest mortality rate as well as the highest relapse rate,” according to UCLA Eating Disorder specialist Dr. Michael Strober.  In fact, Strober said, more young women between 15-24 die from Anorexia Nervosa than from ANY other causes.

These billboards may shock the general public, which could help. At least they might take the problem more seriously when they encounter it in someone they love.

However, the ones who need it most look up at Caro from the street and they don’t even blink.  The people we need to reach don’t see themselves as having a problem. In fact, thoughts about how they can get even thinner consume their minds. These girls see this billboard and feel a need to compete with Caro. They become driven – driven by the very image designed to help, make people aware.  They are driven to self-destruct. And they won’t stop no matter how many horrifying campaigns are displayed.

So what’s the right answer? It’s hard to say; there isn’t just one, other than paying attention and caring, one girl at a time. Maybe this billboard campaign scared one or two into eating a meal.  Maybe counseling would help, and more funding for residential treatment programs.

Maybe pictures simply aren’t enough when the enemy blurs your vision.

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