Western civilization has had eating disorders of some form or another for over five centuries. When the Catholic Church effectively led Europe, they considered extreme fasting to be holy. Many held women who starved themselves in high regard for being closer to God and further from worldly evils. Society as a whole revered anorexics for their commitment to religion until the 16th century, when the Catholic church proclaimed that starving was a sign of witchcraft, and officials burned anorexics at the stake (History of eating disorder, n.d.). These people differ significantly from modern anorexics in that most members of their societies widely praised them, and they were adhering to a cultural expectation. It was not anorexia as is defined today, but merely the start of women choosing to fast for a long time period in an organized manner.
There were several recorded cases of anorexia later, but they were very few and far between, with little to no cultural ties. It wasn’t until 1873, when Sir William Gull published a paper called Anorexia Hysterica, that the disorder had a name (Result Filters n.d.). For another century, there was significant confusion around the concept of eating disorders. Some scientists used psychoanalysis to link sexuality with eating disorders, while others insisted it was a structural problem of the brain. Hilda Bruch published Eating Disorders in 1973, which showed an increasing epidemic of anorexia (History of eating disorder, n.d.). She claimed that anorexia was related to pathology and body perception. This definition caught the public eye, and with the anorexia-induced death of Karen Carpenter in 1983 (R. Carpenter 1983), there was widespread awareness about the existence of anorexia.
Anorexia as we now know it is an eating disorder characterized by markedly reduced appetite or total aversion to food. It is largely based on cultural stigmatization of the presence of body fat being an unattractive quality for a person, especially for a woman. This, in many ways, is an aspect of American culture, and is rarely present in other countries. Countries that restrict women from control over their daily practices have particularly low rates of anorexia (H. S. n.d.). This specific purpose for starving oneself is culture-specific, which suggests that anorexia itself may be a cultural construct and only people living in the United States of America are predisposed to having it. Some anthropologists claim that anorexia as we define it today is uniquely American and has practically never existed outside of the US culture (The Pro Ana Movement, 2009). While religious fasting and unhealthy abuse of starvation for religious purposes exist in many countries, this is a separate idea and is not marked as anorexic as it lack the fears of fatness as an unattractive image.
(For a full definition of anorexia, see http://www.medicinenet.com/anorexia_nervosa/article.htm).
There are two main methods to analyze eating disorders, characterized as either medical (treating an eating disorder as a physical disease and examining it psychologically) or societal (treating an eating disorder as a cultural phenomenon that is developed through the influence of a society upon a person). The medical model is set on finding cures for eating disorders, usually involving physical coercion of food ingestion, and prescribing medication and treatment. The societal method is more involved in examining the causes for anorexia based on common life occurrences, especially among young women, and describing it in those terms. Neither approach perfectly encapsulates an eating disorder as it is generally considered to be a combination of both a physical disease and a societal construct. It is impossible to make a statement about the general population of people with eating disorders, as each person has a unique life story and severity of disorder (Gailey 2009).
For more explanatory models, see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9566.2005.00465.x/full
The United States of America breeds anorexia. In a time and place where fatness is shamed, there is a high level of stress to be thin. American women have the added expectation of being attractive to the male eye, in order to be pleasing. There are unrealistically proportioned bodies portrayed in media and film, showing young girls growing up that this is how they need to look. America has created a phobia of fatness and a strong desire to be thin. This culture makes for plentiful body image issues and dieting, but some people take it a step further and develop anorexia. It becomes an unhealthy, damaging disease, deteriorating the physical body and warping brain functions to work with less efficiency. There are claims that anorexia nervosa is the deadliest mental illness in existence, with a mortality rate of between 5 and 20% (Feature n.d.).
Many anorexics don’t wish to be where they are. What started as an urge to lose weight turns into an obsessive addiction to starvation. While many people experiencing anorexia want to recover, they are physically sickened by food and can feel manipulated into thinking that they’re still fat. There is a long path to recovery, full of pain, shame, and temptation, akin to a drug user losing an addiction.
However, there are some who consciously choose to be anorexic. They acknowledge that what they’re doing to themselves is categorized as an eating disorder, but they continue regardless. Typically, these people have had a history of depression and trauma, and consider themselves happier than ever once fully committed to being anorexic. These people choose to defy the common sense held by a majority of the population that starving is pointlessly unintelligent and commit to being anorexic.
With the creation of the internet, communities of people identifying as anorexic soon popped up and spread from being exclusive and contained to open and on public display. Now, there are many websites about recovering from an eating disorder. There are many supportive communities for those who are determined to recover. People in these groups give encouraging messages, tips, and shelter from the outside world. They can survive together and work toward a common goal of a healthy weight for each person. This is a largely amorphous community, as people committed to recovery and receiving support from these communities will often recover and stop visiting the websites. The communities are for those who are in need, and once recovering anorexics stop needing them they withdraw from actively using the website, only returning to give advice to people currently in the throes of this eating disorder. There is a plethora of books, research projects, poems, and music that recovered anorexics have made and share with these communities. They are about the severity of the impact of an eating disorder, the difficulty of cultural stigmatization because of it, and how to recover.
In a vastly different camp, groups of committed anorexics create websites to support and advise others in how to be anorexic. They are usually very knowledgeable about nutrition and know about the health risks of anorexia, but want it anyway. These people consciously choose this eating disorder as a lifestyle and take part in a community for giving tips and support to each other. They often worship Ana as the goddess of beauty and the figure to look up to. They follow thinspiration to a heavy degree, and are often very exclusive and only will take in committed, “hardcore anorexics”, letting all users know at the home page to leave if they aren’t sure they want to be anorexic. Members are highly competitive and engage in a series of rituals in an online community. Authenticity is carefully held, as these participants almost always engage in offline bodily practices. These are “rituals such as weight check-ins, photographic verifications of body size, feedback requests, group fasts, and food reports help to make offline bodily practices evident in an online discussion group” (Viklund n.d). There are no widespread forms of literature from this culture, but many people wear shirts with pro-ana messages and colored bracelets subtly denoting an eating disorder in public (Lottie n.d.).
Both groups identify as pro-ana. Recovering anorexics consider themselves to be vastly supportive and empathetic to others who are recovering, and therefore pro-anorexic people. Committed anorexics engage in the lifestyle of anorexia by choice and are pro-anorexia. These two groups hotly argue with each other, as evident by many comment threads. A common theme from recovering anorexics is to call out committed anorexics as unhealthy, saying that they are killing themselves and are not fat at all. A common theme from committed anorexics is to shame the actions of people trying to recover and say that they’re getting fat and selling themselves out to society’s demands of eating. These groups, however contrary, share many qualities with each other.
For a diagram comparison: http://www.classtools.net/widgets/venn_2circle_9/vt7ni.htm
Pro-ana communities are empowering. Nearly all members of online communities identify as female, and the language surrounding the websites assumes everyone who reads is a woman. These people, in addition to men and non-binary people who are feminine enough to have body image issues, are oppressed. Societal demands have women basing their self-worth on a weight, and rigid gender roles make non-female anorexics massively uncomfortable with their own bodies. Pro-ana members are part of a community with shared values and can be themselves online without fear of negative reactions. This collective decision and movement of people is powerful for oppressed people who finally have a chance to express themselves and win something.
These reasons make committing to anorexia a form of independence. Pro-ana groups that support committed anorexics in their decisions claim that anorexia is empowering. These people choose a lifestyle of constantly being ridiculed by others around them for having an eating disorder. They go many steps beyond what American culture pushes them to do and own their weight and condition as their own, purely because they want to look that way. They don’t look thin to look attractive for others; they find happiness in thinspiration. One anonymous member of a pro-ana community pertinently posted:
“being overweight and being teased, left out, criticized, etc. can screw up a little girl’s mind. I wouldn’t tell anyone to do what I do, but if they do it on their own, they have their reasons. All my friends with ED’s, including myself, are happier thin than they were fat. Insults and cruelty are easier to handle if they come from yourself.” (The Ana Sanctuary n.d.). This pro-ana community is a vastly independent complex, with people posting about their goal weights while rarely meeting up with each other in person. Most interactions are online, with an often competitive and aggressive tone in which members put down each other in an effort to make them lose weight, similar to athletes yelling at each other to try harder (totally in control n.d.).
Websites devoted to helping anorexics recover are also trying to empower individuals. They cater to people who are in a very hard place in their lives and help pull them out into a better standpoint. The collective action with positive results and a forward movement is hugely motivational for people who feel they have suffered from an eating disorder for far too long and need to get rid of it. As opposed to the committed anorexics who are independently pursuing goals, these recovering anorexics are highly communicative and meet together in support groups often. They make close friends online, share the emotional bond of being a survivor together, and feel they are moving through something difficult as a group. After falling prey to society’s demands and being on the brink of poor health or even death, these people can move forward together and have a victory. The communities are very empowering for people who join, and give members a greater sense of power than if they hadn’t joined. Likewise, committed anorexics find power through seeing the goals of each other on pro-ana websites, and independently working to accomplish these goals. In either case, the existence of these communities gives power to anorexics, setting a theme of empowerment across pro-ana websites.
Both the committed anorexics and the recovering anorexics are massively resisting societal norms by existing. People who choose to be anorexic and immerse themselves in that lifestyle defy the wishes of everyone but the other members of their online pro-ana community. Family, friends, and doctors will almost always staunchly disagree with the practices of committed anorexics and urge them to stop. Recovering anorexics are often very opposed to this commitment, as they have experienced anorexia firsthand and know its dangers but wish to sever bonds with it. These committed anorexics have typically experienced quite a bit of negative treatment from others in society, and view being anorexic as a reaction to society more than a circumstantial decision. Pro-ana websites that encourage anorexics to keep their eating disorder are plagued with negative comments from non-members, often with sexist undertones such as referring to members as “dumb bitches” or “I’d fuck this piece of ass”. Additionally, these websites often face being shut down by servers such as yahoo due to their extremely controversial subject matter (The Ana Sanctuary n.d.). Therefore, the nature of these communities is inherently resistive and anti-society.
The recovering anorexics also resist many of society’s wishes. While some have supportive friends or family who help them in their decision to recover from an unwanted place, many have unsupportive and often cruel people in their lives. There are many links between trauma and eating disorders, which suggest that there are many toxic people in the lives of anorexics (See https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/sites/default/files/ResourceHandouts/TraumaandEatingDisorders.pdf). There is a popular misconception in American culture that anorexia is always a choice, and that anorexic people have control over their eating habits. This is fueled by mass media coverage of pro-ana communities where members commit to anorexia and claim it as a lifestyle. This assumption about anorexic people takes away pity toward recovering anorexics, as they appear to be anorexic of their own volition. This stigma, coupled with a dearth of supportive family or friends, creates a very isolated place for recovering anorexics. Society as a whole misunderstands and gives no empathy for these people, forcing them into a position of loneliness. Committed anorexics also give these people harsh treatment, often telling them that they’re going to be fat and are just “wannarexics”, or people who aren’t good enough to truly be anorexic. One anonymous comment on a pro-ana blog sums up many of these feelings of loneliness:
“i hate the people who say they love ana. i hate ana so much…………to the people who called us ‘dumb bitches’ go fuck yourself. its a real disease. but to the girls and boys who set yourself out to want to be anorexic, go fuck yourselfs too. to the real anorexics, where the ed started off as wanting to lose a few kgs or pounds before summer to fit into that bikini, or getting sick from some other disease then loosing the weight, and when they got out of hospital they didnt want to put the weight back on, my heart goes out to you” (Moonlightrogue n.d.). Thus, by simply existing, these people are resisting negative people and assumptions about total body control.
In both cases, there exists a double standard for women that is impossible to meet. There’s an immense pressure to be thin, but if someone looks too thin then they are anorexic and therefore making bad decisions. These conflicting messages mean that women recovering from anorexia are getting fatter and eating more which is unattractive in the society lens, but women committed to anorexia are stupid and starving. Thus, choosing either is highly resistive.
A documentary about online communities encouraging anorexia, and the deaths of some of these members.
Just Eat (2015)
A blog entry detailing many day-to-day activities of a committed anorexic
A website for how to efficiently stay with an eating disorder
Extensive blogging and thinspiration posting from one person, sharing her experience and advice
Note: the vast majority of thinspiration websites have been taken down by servers, and exist merely as archives if at all. These websites represent the very few popular thinspiration communities that still exist. Most are small, obscure, and hidden.
The most popular website dedicated to supporting the recovery of anorexics
A community for recovering anorexics
Another pro-recovery community
Another pro-recovery community
A website for recovery from anorexia
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