British actress Kate Beckinsale once said, “I believe anorexia is the form of breakdown most readily accessible to young girls.” Indeed, it is during the teenage years that females are most emotionally vulnerable, and at risk for developing an eating disorder. In the Western world, we are continuously bombarded with not-so-subtle ideas that one of the staple requirements for being seen as sexy and desirable is being thin. In modern America, slimness connotes ethereal qualities like delicacy and grace. But when the media showcases supermodels with gaunt, undernourished bodies, the aesthetic takes a dark turn.
The accessibility of images and ideas afforded by the internet has not ameliorated the situation. Instead, it has enabled a disturbing movement- pro-anorexia. Pro-anorexics, or pro-anas, see anorexia as a valid lifestyle choice. While some pro-ana sites may include brief disclaimers about the risks of the illness, the majority of information circulated involves “thinspiration.” This includes (but is not limited to) photos of dangerously thin women, motivational quotes (“Skip dinner, end up thinner”), and personal weight loss progress reports. Throughout all of this, there is a perverse element of competition. Who will be hospitalized first? Who has the lowest BMI?
There is a question of ethics in the proliferation of pro-ana and pro-mia (pro-bulimia) sites. Should the dissemination of such information be illegal? What legal responsibility should such site owners have, if any, in their encouragement of life-threatening illnesses? There is a fervent religiosity in this community-there exist “Ana Psalms,” and the “Ana Creed,” which states mantras like:
“I believe in a wholly black and white world, the losing of weight, recrimination for sins, the abnegation of the body and a life ever fasting.”
Indeed, many pro-ana web sites seem to be penned with intelligence, and dark humor. Who owns these sites? Many have been cleverly set up through free web spaces like Weebly. Perhaps in the future, we will have stricter regulations in terms of requiring identification before web sites get set up – even free ones. This, of course, would open up another can of worms regarding the freedom of speech, and potential issues of censorship. Sometimes, such freedoms seem to come at a cost.
Free agent sites are not the only way in which the pro-ana subculture is being promoted. Social networking sites like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook are filled with “thinspiration.” Young girls connect to one another, share their experiences, and exacerbate their illness. Sometimes, they fast together. Other times they ridicule “wannarexics” for permeating their exclusive community. The term “wannarexic” (wannabe anorexic) is troublesome in itself. It refers to casual dieters or individuals seen as not sick enough.
Language shapes the way in which we perceive the world around us. Years ago, we didn’t have terms like this; this extreme lens through which to see the world was simply nonexistent. The idea that someone can actually be a “failed anorexic” is very new and very troubling, because once someone has been marginalized in that way, their already sick mind is liable to create more self-damaging thoughts. Someone called a wannarexic one day could end up hospitalized a year from now – anorexia works fast.
There needs to be a change. Something needs to happen. Perhaps social networking sites can screen content with more discretion. Tumblr, for instance, already censors certain terms. If Tumblr were more vigilant in censoring terms like “proana,” would it help the situation? Unfortunately, new terms can be invented, or new social networking sites, that have less stringent rules. In February 2012, Tumblr claimed that they would be banning pro-ana sites. But a simple search proves that there are many sites still up and running. And while you cannot track the term “sex,” you can track “proana.”
Tumblr certainly isn’t to blame for the existence of this subculture. Any web site that facilitates the dissemination of information unintentionally creates a channel through which radical ideas may be circulated. Researcher Anthony Casilli has been studying pro-ana and pro-mia communities for several years. According to Casilli, “They have a history of migrating frequently to avoid censorship. Moreover, censorship obtains the paradoxical outcome of multiplying them, mainly because bloggers and forum administrators feel the urge to duplicate and triplicate their contents for backup purposes: they don’t want to lose months of hard work because some web host’s pulled the plug on the their page or forum.” In other words, once an idea is born, it is hard for it to die. Fringe groups, while small, will always have an appeal to some. The troubling thing about pro-anorexia is that its appeal has claimed lives, and will continue to do so.
Because anorexia has a high co-morbidity for issues like depression, young sufferers of depression could potentially find out about the pro-ana community through the #depression hash tag on Twitter (or through searching for a similar mental health hash tag, like #anxiety or #BPD). Impressionable minds may be exposed to this movement, and enchanted by it. The community glamorizes anorexia as if starving were the next best thing to digital scales. When someone has depression, they are already pre-disposed to other mental ailments. At what point does simply talking about something become dangerous? At what point does recommending risky behavior become a crime? What if the person making the pro-ana web site isn’t a sufferer of an eating disorder, but a sadist? These are tough questions, with no immediate answers.
Perhaps a small educational reform would be appropriate. Cyberbullying has been laughed off by some, who recommend just shutting off the computer. But online experience has the ability to cross into the “real world.” Digital experience bleeds into offline life when a young girl is taunted about a rumor that was generated online. Similarly, posting tips on how to unhealthily lose weight can affect another person in a profound and insidious way, such that pressing the Delete key doesn’t undo the damage. An educational program that examines online actions and their offline effects could prove to be very advantageous.
Pro-ana and pro-mia are not the only disturbing communities out there. The self-injury community is also very active. In recent news, controversial image board 4-chan (birthplace of “Anonymous”) launched a hoax on Twitter, making the hash tag #cuttingforbieber. The group released photos, pretending to have cut themselves in response to allegations of Justin Bieber smoking marijuana. Even if the initial photos were fake, they could have triggered real responses from people who suffer from self-injury. Pro-anorexia photos are similarly damaging, and sometimes they are also fake or digitally altered.
The internet is an exciting place, but whenever people have the opportunity to create, there’s a chance they will create destructive things. It’s a troubling paradox, and one that will hopefully be addressed and discussed more in the future.
Laura Cerrato is a mental health advocate with a history of anorexia nervosa. She has not struggled with an eating disorder for 8 years now. Currently, she works as a writer, and operates www.anxietyland.com in her spare time.