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Photo: Getty Images

Initially, I dismissed it as a sick joke. I mean, how else do you respond to reports of talent scouts from modelling agencies canvassing an eating-disorders clinic for recruits? 

Incredibly these ‘scouts’ had patrolled the area outside the clinic in Stockholm, Sweden, waiting for the women, some barely in their teens, to come out during their daily walks.

“One of those contacted was in a wheelchair because she was so skinny,” the director of the Stockholm Centre for Eating Disorders, Anna-Maria af Sandeberg, told Swedish news agency TT gravely.

Despite the fact that Sweden’s Elite Model Management swiftly denounced the methods as “disgusting and unethical”, the sordid episode sounded eerily familiar.

From using underage models to engineering an airbrushing culture, the modelling industry has long pushed the envelope on acceptable behaviour.

It’s also crossed the floor on more than one occasion. As Jenna Sauers writes at Jezabel, South American scouts often resort to unscrupulous means in their search for “white models in countries like Brazil”, while in Russia “impoverished teenagers” are left thousands of dollars in debt after being lured into modelling with “tales of the financial security”.

After all, how hard is it to blindside someone already with stars in their eyes? Surely, that’s the ready explanation for the steady consortium of modelling scams to be found all the way from Houston to Hong Kong.

But let’s walk for a moment in the shoes of the patients in Sweden. Here was a group of hospitalised young women and teenagers slowly going about their day; taking, literally, small steps towards their healing and trying to fill those thick, interminable hours between treatment.

What’s patently obvious is that these visibly ill young women were completely unprepared for this pack of opportunistic jackals.

Don’t just take my word for it. As Michelle Smith, who runs a similar facility in California, explained on a US chat show last year, anorexia was “a disease of shame; the most shameful disease out there, more so than substance abuse and other addictions. These women come in broken…”

Since the stalking episodes, the Stockholm facility has been forced to change its treatment routine which included scrapping its patients’ daily therapeutic walks. On its website, the centre adds that another vital part of the treatment was “the cooperation with the family and the social network”, which had also, in all likelihood, been compromised.

Despite evidence to the contrary, anorexia and modelling have always had an uneasy alliance, as was tragically played out in the 2007 ad for Italian brand Nolita, staring the severely anorexic Isabelle Caro. Her slight frame, all sharp angles and startling fragility, drew a collective gasp. Three years later Caro was dead. She was 28.

There are sound reasons this hit a universal note. Anorexia cuts across age, gender and culture; and it’s far more insidious than we give it credit for. Last year, a health report found that previous estimates of Australians suffering from eating disorders were grossly underestimated with true figures up around the one million mark.

These young women in Sweden are among society’s most vulnerable; at war with every cell in their bodies. What thought processes were possibly at play to think that it was okay to wave a modelling contract under their noses?

This wasn’t just straight stalking or, even, the jeopardising of life-saving treatment; this was giving humanity itself the middle finger. Personally, I’d like to tell these so-called scouts exactly what they can do with their business cards and heady proclamations, and I couldn’t promise to stop there, either.