It’s a typical day in 21st century America. All our doors are locked. Our children are boarding school buses in hopes of being the bully and not the bullied as they make their way down the road to say the pledge of allegiance, with or without the words “under God.” Katie Couric, Matt Lauer and Al Roker are reporting from the Rockefeller Plaza while tourists wave signs outside of it. And our young girls nervously walk into the halls of their high schools worrying about how much they ate for breakfast.
It’s a typical day for an adolescent female. She wakes up and notices whether or not she’s hungry, eats a light, fat-free breakfast if she thinks she’s too hungry to make it until lunch, which she’ll probably skip so she can eat a full dinner so as not to worry her parents. She is surrounded by images of thin women, and she knows that all women don’t look like Christina Aguilera, but her subconscious registers her own body type as being something other than beautiful. If her jeans fit a little more tightly than they did the day before, she feels like crying. If she manages to shed a few pounds, she’ll be praised for it by peers and even adults. The teen magazines that she looks to for guidance warn her of eating disorders, but they show pictures of girls who are little more than skeletons, while the opposite page shows a 100-pound model who could just as easily be undernourished. She knows the danger, and yet she wonders, how hard it would it be to just let it happen? Be skinny, be praiseworthy, get attention…even if that attention ends up being medical attention.
It may sound ridiculous, but the longing to give in to anorexia is frighteningly common. As the ever-foolish media attempts to educate young girls of the danger, they accidentally glamorize the disease. I vividly remember the TV movies “For the Love of Nancy” and “A Secret Between Friends,” which were used in my health classes to educate us, in hopes that we would not develop eating disorders. Incidentally, these movies show exactly how it is done—how these girls hide their food and cover their tracks, and the unwavering dedication that they possess.
This kind of education takes place at the age when young girls crave drama in their lives. If you have a horrible life, at least you know that you have a life. Girls crave validation. Tragedy romanticizes existence, and this is exactly what young girls want: a romantic existence. This sort of romanticizing brings up the issue of control, the issue most often used as an umbrella reason for eating disorders. You can’t be in every movie, you can’t make a handsome prince fall in love with you, you can’t fly over the rainbow—but you can develop an eating disorder. All you have to do is follow the steps taken by the girl in the movie.
When I watched these movies in my early teenage years, I couldn’t help but notice the concern friends and family held for the girl in question. They looked out for her, took care of her, and there was no doubt that they sincerely loved her. I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone loved me that much. If I ever became anorexic, would someone be there to help me through it? I needed my family and friends to prove their love to me. I didn’t consciously develop anorexia because of this need, but I admit that I formed the idea. It is because of my memories of life in the impressionable pre-anorexic mind that I worry about the generation of girls growing up after me. The images of females in the media haven’t changed since then. In fact, probably the only major change in the media in the past ten years has been the rise of Internet usage. And this combination of factors has resulted in a very disturbing trend: pro-anorexia websites. Or, as the sites like to call themselves, “pro-ana.” When they refer to bulimia, then it’s “mia.” Eating disorders in general are simply shortened to “eds.” Another word that has been coined for this phenomenon is “thinspiration,” which usually involves pictures of extremely thin women, both models and clinically thin victims of anorexia. The Eating Disorders Association believes at least 400 pro-anorexia sites and chatrooms currently exist on the Internet. The content of the sites usually consists of online journaling about anorexic behaviors and comments on the journaling. Girls exchange tips on how to perpetuate the disorder and how to hide it from others. The most popular tagline is “Anorexia is a lifestyle, not a disease.”
The sites generally operate under the pretense of support, and some of them may actually accomplish that for girls who are already anorexic and do not intend to recover. The question is whether support for their state is actually a good thing. Some of the contributors say they “suffer” from “ana,” while others relish it and say they enjoy it. They refuse help in getting better. But very few eating disorder victims are willing to go into recovery until someone intervenes and insists on it (in my case, it was my mother). Some of the sites want to help minimize the damage to the body; others are overtly harmful. They naively believe that their words do not influence others, but I have read the following sentence on an online diary: “I think I might cut up my gums so it hurts to eat so I won’t want to; I saw that on a pro-ana site.” This statement is proof of at least one instance where the sites have been used as instructional.
Many other anorexic girls, however, wander into these “anorexic communities” looking for support in conquering something that is on the verge of destroying them. They do not get the help they need from the pro-anorexia websites; instead they get reinforcement of the problem that they want to overcome. In that stage, it’s very difficult to overcome something when others are convincing you that you don’t need to. I remember the “you’ve lost weight” compliments when I was very sick, and how they made me struggle with whether to recover at all. I always told myself that the givers of these compliments had no idea what they were saying because they did not know I was anorexic. These memories convince me that someone knowing you were anorexic, and still reinforcing it, could easily drive a young girl over the edge.
A number of “pro-ana” communities exist on the popular LiveJournal.com server. One such community states on its profile, “This is a supportive community for anorexics and bulimics. This is not a debate community and there will be no bashing of our views. This community is especially created for thinspiration such as thinspiring pictures or poems or stories. All are welcome.” The comment on bashing of their views seems to be echoed in the profile of another community:
“If you are anti-ed, then you are NOT welcome here. How about you all stop treating people with eds like little children who don’t know any better? We know the health side effects because we live with them everyday [sic]. I think it’s cruel that you all make jokes at people with eating disorder’s expense and then try to justify it by saying you just want them to be happy and eat and healthy. You just want someone to attack and belittle is what your problem is. I don’t want to hear about society. What else do you morons ever say? And quit stalking ed related communities. Some people are happy at their weight but we are not. So go away. Don’t bother to join this community and post bullshit because I’ll delete and remove you faster than you can wipe your ass.”
Reading this reveals a hurt and angry person with a strong enough command of language to make her argument effective. Yet I can’t look away from the name of the community: “fat ana: overweight with ed.” The page’s background shows a girl who looks perfectly healthy standing atop a scale, as if to imply that she is overweight.
One LiveJournal user writes on the “anti-ana” community that she fled to it from the “pro-ana” communities:
“I’m documenting my recovery, because it was so hard for me to find resources that dealt with the actual recovery. I would go into chat rooms seeking advice and most of the girls there would get into contests to see who was ‘sicker.’ ‘Oh my God, you’re a candidate for inpatient? I wish I was that sick!!’ I left those in absolute disgust.”
One owner of a pro-anorexia diary writes as her introduction,
“I live my life in the pursuit of being thinner. I’ve been doing this since my 16th birthday; it’s like on that day I realized how fat I was. I was 120 lbs and thought nothing of it, but little did I realize I was on the road to being just like the rest of my family… severly [sic] obese. I vowed that day to be skinny, and I’m still working on it. I’ve long since passed my original weight loss goals, yet when I look into the mirror, I still see a fat girl looking back. I can’t stop now, I must be as thin as I possibly can. And I will do whatever it takes to get there.”
Chills run down my spine. One-hundred twenty is a healthy weight for an adolescent female, and doing whatever it takes to be as thin as possible will, ultimately, end in death.
The fatality factor seems to be ignored by these sites. I have even seen one that was “in memory of _________ who died of anorexia. She was an avid pro-anorexic.” The logic in that baffles me. When someone dies of AIDS, we don’t try to help AIDS patients stay sick. What would we say if people with heart disease had online communities where they egged each other on in eating Big Macs? One member of a pro-anorexia forum offers “fasting” tips, then wraps them up by saying, “BUT MOST IMPORTANT: If you die, all your hard work is USELESS. So don’t die, ok? Cause I’ll miss you!”
Many personal web page servers, such as Angelfire and Yahoo, have banned pro-anorexic sites on the domains which they sponsor. The majority of the pro-anorexic sites that thrive are on online diary services such as LiveJournal and Diaryland. Many people suspect that the websites exist for shock value and attention-getting, which is a viable theory considering the overtly rough language and seemingly ignorant stance of the “pro-ana” sites.
Naturally, pro-anorexia sites catch the eyes of many concerned individuals such as myself. I have been brave enough to approach the sites with comments along the lines of “please understand that anorexia is a serious disease. I suffered it myself, and I strongly encourage you to get help. Please think about the effect that your website could have on people.” Most of these comments go ignored, not surprisingly. Although I did receive one rewarding reply thanking me for my concern and the inspiration of my recovery, most of the replies I’ve gotten are of this variety: “I am not going to turn some girl into an anorexic. Do you think I am an idiot to all of a sudden change what I write to please you? You proboly [sic] cut and paste that line on tons of journals just so you can get some sort of peace of mind. Well, you look like a dumbass.” And maybe I do look like a dumbass. But I’m okay with that. What I’m not okay with is sitting idly by and watching, unable to look away from the screen as if it were a terrible car crash.
It terrifies me to think about what would have happened if I had seen these sites just a few short years ago. I am saddened and disgusted that the consciousness of our culture has led not only to breeding eating disorders in young girls, but now in allowing them to purposely nurture one another’s harmful behavior. These are our young girls, and this is the world they are growing up in. They believe themselves to be adults, beyond a need for guidance—but who among us remembers being fifteen and impressionable? Who among us is glad that our distorted self-destructive notions were not encouraged any further than they were? Who among us is glad to still be here today, having won (or almost won) the battles we fought as a teenager? Maybe sites like these will always exist, but shouldn’t we at least be making the effort to outweigh them with nurturing of another kind?