09/29/2007 03:39 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Anorexic Chic?

They do it for shock value.

The fashion moguls are playing the "shock and awe" game again. This time with an ad campaign for Nolita, featuring an emaciated nude woman.

Not just thin a la Kate Moss. Not heroin addict chic, heroin chic as promoted by Calvin Klein in the 90's. No, thin, as in a concentration camp survivor thin. She's in newspapers, on billboards, on TV, and all over the Internet. See for yourself. Warning: this isn't pretty. It's anorexia nervosa, stark and real.

Are you gasping? Are you disgusted? Are you thinking these photos have got to be doctored?

Whatever your gut response, eventually you'll be wondering what this is all about.

According to a press release from the ad's sponsor, Flash&Partners Group, which manufactures clothing under the Nolita label, the message is, "No Anorexia." It's about banning the disease from the runway. The concept is stated by photographer Oliviero Toscani, renowned for his images of an activist dying of AIDS, used in a 1992 Benetton ad campaign. He wants, "to show the reality of this sickness to all through this naked body, a sickness that in most cases is caused by stereotypes imposed on women by the fashion world."

Wow. At first glance, Flash&Partners is doing a great public service, warning models of the pitfalls of going too far on the skinny side. The poor starving waif in the Nolita ad must be a former model who went over the edge of the runway and fell to the basement. Somewhere on the group's website, we'll find her sad story. Or, at least exhortations from the sponsor about avoiding anorexia. Maybe there are a few links to the appropriate eating disorder organizations. And advice from a few treatment centers.

Guess again.

The emaciated woman is Isabelle Caro. She's 27, and according to her blog, she's a theatrical comedian who's suffered from anorexia since the age of 13. She blames her disease on a difficult childhood, not the fashion industry. So this isn't the story of a fallen model.

Rather, F&P is apparently using Caro as a symbol of what could happen to wayward runway models and a remonstration to the culture for goading young girls into unhealthy ideals. If there were some follow up content, I could buy this message.

But there isn't any. The group's Website includes a press release, an email feedback link, and a photo gallery that features close-ups of Caro's nearly-skeletal body parts and her coyly smiling face, culminating with a fluorescent pink "NO."

The screen says, "No," but her smile says, "Yes."

Yes to what?

"Yes, I am a person, a female inside this body."

"Yes, I am the best anorexic - at 5'4," 68 pounds."

"Yes, I've got your attention now."

Only she knows what's she was thinking. And we are left disturbed, haunted, intrigued, and perhaps manipulated. Whatever our personal reaction, we can't help but look at this image, a representation of classic anorexia. And that's the whole point of shock ads.

So much for just saying "no."

While there isn't additional content relating to Caro or the "No Anorexia" campaign on the Nolita site, there's lots of other eye candy for your viewing pleasure. Like the thumping Flash movie featuring a model (not Caro), reclining. This person looks much healthier and is fully-garbed in skin tight pants and leather boots. She rolls to and fro as she demos the Nolita line. By comparison to Caro, the clothed model is fleshy! Well not really. But she's still probably thinner than 97 percent of the rest of the women in the world. In any case, it's quite a show.

And sadly, the show is what this is all about. Isabelle Caro -- in the raw -- is merely a ploy to get people to click onto a high-end clothing site. Bait and switch. Titillate and sell.

If F&P really wanted to help cure a disease greatly exacerbated by the industry from which it profits, it might have consulted the medical community first. Some experts say that many women, particularly those most desperate for thinness, are likely to respond to the ad, not with caution, but rather, with a competitive drive: I want to be like her, the best anorexic. Remember that coy smile. So the ad campaign can actually worsen the fall from the runway into eating disorders.

Fabiola De Clercq, the president of Italy's Association for the Study of Anorexia, summed it up bluntly, telling the Times, U.K., that the image was "pointless and damaging" and Reuters that the woman used for the photo should be in the hospital -- not up on a billboard.

Indeed, there's more harm than help in using Caro this way. In the Nolita ad, she's merely a prop -- just as all the runway models are objects, living hangers, draped with clothing. Will we remember Caro's face? Or her story? Will we say, "What an act of courage by this woman to allow her starved, naked body to be exposed, raw and real?"

Probably not. But for sure, we'll remember Nolita.

And not for the company's humanitarian largess. Rather, we'll remember Nolita for its shrewd branding as we did Calvin Klein for its ad campaign using children in provocative poses. Speaking of children, you ought to check out the children's section of the website, "Nolita Pocket." If your kids were visiting, they would need to click past Caro's image before entering an anime world of cute characters, activities, and, of course, Nolita's children's line.

The photographers and fashion designers are doing what they do best: Making bodies and clothing into art - or spectacles. Either way, they sell. And we buy. And keep on buying, even if it means disease.