Reprinted from "Eating Disorders" issue of Visions Journal, 2002, No. 16, pp. 27-28
When I first heard about the existence of proanorexia web sites about two years ago, I was quite horrified. Having worked as a therapist and being involved in coalition work and activism around this issue for several years, I felt terrified that all the work that thousands have been doing to end disordered eating might quickly be undone, especially by something existing in a medium as vast and influential as the internet. But as I began to look closer at these web sites, I saw glaring contradictions and paradoxes, and heard voices expressing things that didn’t quite mesh with the dominant interpretations and criticisms of what these women were trying to accomplish.
Offline education tools
The tide of information need not only come from the media and the internet. Teachers and parents have lots of good resources available to them to teach and empower youth about body image issues and self-acceptance. Youth, in turn, will then be in a better position to critically evaluate the whole range of web sites and media messages
Pro-anorexia (known as “pro-ana”) web sites provide girls and women with a forum to discuss and share information about “ana.” They make it clear that their purpose is to support those who are struggling with an eating disorder, and to provide a ‘space’, free from judgment, where they can offer encouragement to those who are not yet ready to recover. The sites tend to have common features such as bulletin boards and chat rooms, diaries, ‘tips & tricks,’ and ‘trigger pics’ or ‘thinspirations’ (pictures of emaciated women to ‘inspire’ you not to eat).
Upon first contact, the primary purpose seems to be to promote and support anorexia (not just anorexics), including detailed ‘how to’s.’ Ironically, most of the images of thinness and emaciation on the sites are mainstream pictures of celebrities or fashion models. If some of the models and celebrities were not familiar to us, it would be very difficult to discern between the ‘abnormal’ bodies of the women with anorexia and the so-called ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ bodies of the models. These images highlight the glaring contradictory messages girls and women receive about appearance and their bodies.
Pro-anorexia web sites have caused a huge uproar in the media, the medical community, and among parents and individuals struggling with anorexia. In mainstream media, critiques of pro-ana sites — usually interviews with medical “experts” — the web site owners are blamed for causing and promoting a deadly disease. These critiques fail to mention the broader and more complex historical, political and social factors contributing to the epidemic of disordered eating in the first place. An examination of the women’s own words shows they are quite articulate and aware of their circumstances:
‘What does pro-ED (pro-ana) mean to me?
People with eating disorders are isolated and surrounded by people who don’t understand what we think or feel. Without anyone to talk to and empathize with, we turn more and more inward, which only makes things worse. Eating disorders (EDs) are a coping mechanism. We don’t choose to be this way, and we can’t simply decide to stop. Some of us need our EDs still and aren’t ready to recover.
Eating disorders are dangerous, and ignorance compounds that. We can’t go ask for safe advice from non-EDs without a risk of being hospitalized or shunned. Pro-ED to me means understanding that there’s no shame in how we are…It means support for us so we don’t have to deal with this alone. I t means nonjudgmental help so we can survive and remain as safe and healthy as possible while maintaining the behaviors we still need to keep. Pro-ED to me does not mean recruiting, encouraging or teaching others to be anorexic, encouraging excessively dangerous practices, or starving to death.’
Unlike the picture that is painted in the media of sinister, pathetic, malicious girls trying to harm themselves and others, many of the narratives on these web sites paint quite a different picture. They illustrate the struggles, pain and searching for acceptance and connection, as well as ambivalence towards recovery that is a realistic part of an eating disorder. We can see that these women are very aware of their own situation, and that they look out for and care for others.
I believe that there is much more depth and meaning to these women’s experiences than may be obvious by listening to mainstream interpretations of their messages. Anorexia is certainly not to be taken lightly: its effects can be extremely harmful and potentially fatal.
However, considering the high failure rate for biomedical treatment methods,1 perhaps it is time to re-examine the approach we take as a society to these ‘mental disorders.’ It is my hope is that the emergence of these web sites might open up areas of discussion and debate, rather than becoming one more reason to pathologize the individual girls and women who struggle with eating disorders. From there, maybe we can begin to better understand what drives women in industrialized societies — and increasingly globally — to need to seek out alternative spaces for safety, understanding and support.
About the authorKaren Dias is a counsellor in private practice in Vancouver. She facilitates “What Are You Hungry For?” groups for women struggling with issues around food, weight, body image and disordered eating. She is also a graduate student at UBC in Women’s Studies
“Half of anorexia treatments fail,” Globe and Mail, May 22, 2001.