Unpopular Opinions: A Pro-Recovery Argument in Support of Pro-Ana.
(This post is pretty heavy self-plagiarism on my part, but beyond my own essay, there are a few other important sources to recognize. Most notably: Sarah Riley: (et al) Doing Weight, Pro-Ana and Recovery Identities in Cyberspace and Debra Ferredey: Erasure, Embodiment, and the Pro-Ana Community.)
Let me start by saying that a “defense” of pro-ana is not something I ever expected to write. After all, my only involvement with the pro-ana communtities — groups that operate largely online and do not universally accept the notion of anorexia and bulimia as illnesses — has consisted of pretty serious opposition. I spent years as a firm proponent of criminalizing pro-ana content, I have ranted and cried and soapboxed over their existence, and — even now, having researched and delivered papers on pro-ana, having sat down to write this post — I find that viewing a pro-ana website triggers a mess of emotion in me, none of which is particularly pretty. Let’s establish all that before we get down to how –and why — my opinion changed, and why I now advocate that other recovery advocates reconsider their opinions, likewise.
I’m not pretending here that I don’t maintain a bias toward the view of anorexia and bulimia as diseases. I don’t consider anorexia, bulimia, or EDNOS lifestyles; I view them as illnesses — illnesses I have particularly strong feelings about and don’t like to see anyone experience. Ever. But increasingly, I believe that those of us who passionately wish that no one would ever again develop an eating disorder need to quit being the people arguing against the development of pro-ana websites. Not because we support eating disorders. But because we support the people who have them.
Most of us understand that anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders are represented extremely poorly in the mainstream media. We know what it’s like to be dying (or to love someone who is dying) of a disease that is considered a superficial “choice,” a “diet” stubbornly adhered to past the point of reason. We know what it’s like to be considered victims, incapable of saving ourselves from our “will to self-destruct” — the “power” we have to restrict our intake, which is maybe kind of “fascinating” (in a car crash sort of way), but which will inevitably kill us in the end. We know what it’s like to be considered responsible for a disease that has taken everything from us, to be presumed young, female, white, upper-class, and a reader of fashion magazines. We know what it’s like to have who we really are and what our disease is really about come up against the Lifetime movie/ health textbook definition of eating disorders that everyone seems to have internalized — and lose out to that image. To have those we love realize they can either challenge the concept of EDs they’ve been told to believe in — (and maintain their concept of who we are) — or change their idea of us to fit that image. We’ve seen them choose, sometimes, to keep believing in the disease sold to them by after-school specials, seen them abandon their knowledge that we don’t fix that picture, and in doing so — abandon us as we know ourselves to be.
Put bluntly: we know the representation of eating disorders is crap and that the vast majority of people struggle to let go of the models they were handed for “what an ED looks like,” “who gets one,” and “what that means.” But we seem to forget, in the recovery community, that this craptastic representation of our experience(s) might extend to those in the pro-ana population. We forget that the media portrayals of pro-ana might also be misleading, might also create bizarre victim/ villain dichotomies, in which “good” people with EDs get to be victims (who die) and “bad” people with EDs get to be stubborn, treatment-resistent delinquents who attempt to steer others down their own ill-conceived path.
The more I delved into the research on pro-ana — and the more I fought past the panic and heartbreak I felt, in order to view these sites — the more I found this notion borne out. Pro-ana sites, in reality, are not the dark underbelly of the Internet that we’ve been reading about in magazines. They’re far less monolithic and far more ambivalent than their mainstream portrayal. A 2009 paper by psychologists Sarah Riley and Jeff Gavin argued this point, noting that the pro-ana/ pro-recovery dichotomy — which basically suggests that pro-recovery sites view EDs as diseases and support recovery, while pro-ana sites view EDs as lifestyles and support members in restriction, binging and purging, etc — is not particularly applicable, when you actually examine these sites. My own fledgling research from last spring (on which this post is largely based) found similarly: Many pro-ana sites speak about eating disorders as illnesses, many suggest seeking treatment, and many urge those who do not have eating disorders away from both the forums and the behaviors. In other words, while there could potentially be individuals and sites that work to recruit individuals without eating disorders into those behaviors and that wholeheartedly refuse to conceptualize eating disorders as disorders, they aren’t the norm. The norm is much murkier. It’s an ambivalent spectrum of perspectives that includes conflicting conceptualizations of anorexia, bulimia, recovery, and identity — often within a single site.
The notion behind censoring these sites — which remains strong for many even upon hearing that the communities don’t universally claim anorexia and bulimia are positive/ harmless/ etc — is that they are dangerous because they trigger eating disorders. I will reluctantly put aside — for the moment — the very relevant fact that no one has determined the etiology of an eating disorder; no one knows in a clear sense what causes these diseases. If they did, we’d be able to treat and cure them in the entirely effective way we treat and cure diseases we understand. (Chicken pox, polio, etc). Reluctantly, I’ll pretend that we know the material on these websites can and does cause people to have eating disorders, in order to make this related point: The vast majority of material on pro-ana sites — the material people are working to censor — does not originate in pro-ana. Yes, the forums and blogs and discussion boards are original, but the “thinspiration” photos, generally of emaciated women, are nearly always lifted from the mainstream media. (The trend of “real-life” anorexics posting their own photos as “thinspiration” has developed out of images lifted from other areas of culture.) The pro-ana slogan “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” is understood to have originated with Weight Watchers. Likewise, many of the described or “recommended” practices for restriction are lifted from “mainstream” diet publications.
But there is not the same degree of outrage about Weight Watchers. There is very little disgust, particularly outside the recovery community, over diet culture. Most of the people I know have no stake in criminalizing The Biggest Loser or pushing Yahoo! to pull all content related to Weight Watchers from its servers, (the way they pulled all pro-ana content, back in 2001). Yet, there are attempts to criminalize the act of running a pro-ana website, pro-ana moderators report that they’ve received death threats, and the same material that is considered illicit and offensive in a pro-ana context is considered good marketing in the mainstream.*
So, pro-ana effectively becomes a scapegoat. We police the same images and phrases in these communities that we herald in other arenas, and we police the existence of these communities and of people who identify (themselves or their “diseases”) in this way. Simultaneously, we ignore the (endless) testimony of people who have or have had eating disorders, who describe diverse triggers for their illnesses, which generally include more “benign” materials — among them, health classes, PBS documentaries, and materials meant to raise “awareness” about EDs — as well as factors unrelated to exposure, (e.g. genetic history, abuse and abandonment, other diagnoses, etc). We’re instructed by a magazine exposé to go after the dastardly pro-ana websites that want our daughters dead, so we do — and while we do, we overlook that magazine and the role it plays in putting “our daughter’s” health at risk.** We overlook true stories that don’t support our notion that pro-ana is to blame, stories like one I could tell you — about the fantastic pro-recovery website, Something Fishy, and how I had to walk away from the boards there to avoid relapse. It’s a great site. I wouldn’t want it banned. But again, the research — (particularly from Ferredey) — supports that pro-recovery and pro-ana websites are in fact more similar than different. That while pro-recovery sites are more likely to ban “numbers” — weights, calories, BMIs, etc — members still find ways to signify their size and still position the thin body as healthy/ ideal. And this isn’t limited to cyberspace. While the Riley study I mentioned earlier speaks of residents in a treatment clinic who’d learned new rituals from pro-recovery websites, I know people (and am someone) who learned new rituals from being in treatment.
Short version? It’s all far more complicated than your friends’ Facebook relationships. And it’s far more complicated than we generally let it be when we’re ranting, soapboxing, and signing those petitions.
Anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders are not easy diseases to look at directly. I say this from experience, not just as someone who has this disease, but as someone who (contrary to the amount of posts you can find from me on them) finds the mere discussion of EDs incredibly emotionally charged. My immediate reaction to ED-related material is a panic attack; other prime responses include tears, depression, and re-emerging grief over friends I have lost to these illnesses. This disease, more often than not, feels like something that can break me, and so for many years I looked at the pro-ana communities with feelings of hatred and personal betrayal. I hated them for arguing in favor of a disease that’s killed two of my friends. I hated them for “choosing” an illness that I and people I love dearly continue to fight. I hated them for reminding me of being in that mindset, for leaving me so vulnerable to memories I wanted to forget, for triggering me — not into restricting or purging — but into looking at my own eating disorder, in the mirror of others’ Anas and Mias, others’ blogs and YouTube vids.
My work against pro-ana communities has been based on these emotions, and (again) the research suggests I’m not an anomole. Debra Ferredey notes that the “dominant emotion” in calls to remove pro-ana material is disgust. Disgust at eating-disordered behaviors. Disgust at emaciated bodies. While preparing a presentation on this topic this past spring, I did a few quick searches of Twitter and Facebook statuses and found some shocking posts from within just the past hour. There were calls to kill the creators of pro-ana websites. There were discussions of getting thin the “real” way, as opposed to the stupid anorexic way. There were terrifying and heartbreaking attacks on the personhood, the gender identity, and the value of people with anorexia and other eating disorders. Although these attacks are waged, most violently, against the pro-ana communities of “bad” people with eating disorders — those who are dumb/ cruel/ stupid enough to choose to get and stay sick — they inevitably blur into attacks on anorexics and bulimics more generally. They overlap with hatred for skinny models, with hatred for the “superficial” high-school girls with their competing diets of the week, and for hatred toward anorexics who very much view their experience as a battle against a disease. They become attacks on every single one of us who has this illness, regardless of whether we share (any form of) the pro-ana conception. So, they become dangerous for all of us. And when we accept them, we do a disservice — not only because hatred for pro-ana means hatred for other anorexics may be or must be next, but because we cannot ethically advocate for better treatment for EDs, when we refuse to acknowledge an entire subpopulation of people who have them.
This argument — that it’s a pretty shitty mental health community that defends people from anorexia by putting certain anorexics up for social execution– hinges on the notion that people involved in pro-ana communities do have a disorder, regardless of whether they fall into the sub-subpopulation that sees eating disorders as a lifestyle. But I admitted early-on to this bias of seeing EDs as EDs, and I acknowledge it again now. Simultaneously, I’d like to suggest that the perception of eating disorders not-as-diseases is important and deserves more exploration than it’s been given. It deserves exploration — not because restriction, bingeing, purging et cetera are not dangerous or are not deadly — but because the current model (of anorexia as a medical pathology, of anorexics as victims or villains, etc) — is failing a large number of people so severely that they have begun creating alternative narratives of their experience. Something in the medical narrative of anorexia and bulimia (the narrative on which the media narratives are based) fails to describe these individuals’ experiences so completely that they are refusing recovery communities altogether. We argue that they are stubbornly clinging to their disease, but there are many, many narratives on-line from individuals who write that they have an illness, that they wish they didn’t, but that they do not feel comfortable in “recovery”-oriented settings for various reasons.
I don’t claim to understand, fully, what those reasons are or might be. But I do know that we have created multiple representations of anorexia, bulimia, anorexics, and bulimics with which I do not personally want to be associated. I know that I went into a tearful rage not long after my diagnosis because my mother called me “an anorexic” rather than “a person with anorexia” and “an anorexic” (because of its associations, its meanings beyond the diagnostic criteria) was not something I wanted to be. I don’t find it easy to look at pro-ana material, but I consider it important nevertheless. Because I hate this disease, but I care deeply about the people who have it. And because I think, woven into the calorie-diaries, the Ana creeds, and the thinspo videos is a very real, very necessary call to see and understand eating disorders — and those who are living with them — differently than we have in the past.
There is a strength in the pro-ana counter-narrative that has nothing to do with anorexia: the strength of challenging the limitations of a dominant representation with one’s own interpretation of a personal experience. There is rationalization of ED rituals here, and there is also health. So, to borrow from my favorite Joanne Greenberg novel, it is my firm belief that “we must someday make a test to show us where the health is, as well as the sickness. The hidden strength is too deep a secret. But in the end… in the end it is our only ally.”
*It’s worth noting that — even in communities that are working to see this kind of content addressed, altered, or removed across the board, “pro-ana” is often used as shorthand to argue that a phrase is unnacceptable, offensive, or dangerous. In the fight over Perez Hilton’s “Nothing Tastes as Good as Skinny Feels” shirt, for instance, opponents consistently objected to the fact that this was a pro-ana catchphrase to signal their disgust over the slogan’s content. The t-shirt, like the pretzel campaign that followed, was flagged for being “pro-ana” or for “supporting eating disorders” — and Hilton apologized by explaining that he had no idea the phrase was used in pro-ana communities. Thus, he effectively suggested that this message becomes dangerous through its association with anorexia. To the contrary, I’d argue that these messages and images are not dangerous for being pro-ana; they’re dangerous for encouraging views and practices regarding food, weight, and the body which are unhealthy for all of us, anorexic or otherwise.
**Because adults are immune and boys are immune and girls need protection blah blah standard limited representation blah.