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Anorexia advocates turn medical condition into self-expression

Valeria Lukyanova: a ‘thinspiration’ pin up. Youtube

Decoration and modification of the body have become a contemporary form of fashion. Aesthetic sensibilities once considered quite deviant (and now ordinary) commonly articulate our sense of self through adornments such as tattoos and body piercings. But would you consider anorexia to be a form of self-expression?

Among mainstream clinicians, both anorexia and bulimia nervosa are regarded as a serious mental disturbance, where symptomatic features include denial of illness and strong resistance to treatment. In contrast, anorexics can collectively normalise their condition, defending it as the achievement of self-control, a move towards success and perfection and an essential part of their identity. “Pro-ana”, the term used to promote the eating disorder and commonly referred to by anorexics simply as “ana”, is becoming more familiar. In some cases it is sometimes personified as a girl called Ana.

Pro-ana advocates differ widely in their stances about ana websites. Most claim they are principally a non-judgemental space for anorexics – but there are others who deny anorexia nervosa is a mental illness and claim rather that it is a lifestyle choice that should be respected as such by doctors and family. The less common term “pro-mia” refers similarly to bulimia and some users have again constructed a confidant modelled on Ana, this time named “Mia”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, academic scrutiny has concentrated on the clinical features of anorexia – both physical and psychological. But there has been a growing interest in what it is like living with anorexia, there’s a paucity of research into the ana phenomena within social science, and almost none from the field of education. It is this that will unpick why some see it as a growing movement of resistance and rebellion, within broader themes of digital transgression and online communities. A paper we’ve just published in the International Journal of Adolescence and Youth considers this very issue.

Act of resistance

It is possible to read pro-ana assertions as acts of resistance, not in any heroic way, but simply as young people marking out their sense of agency. Pro-ana advocacy has flourished on the internet, mainly through close, coherent, support groups centred on web forums and, more recently, social network services such as Tumblr and Facebook. These groups typically have an overwhelmingly female readership and claim they are frequently the only means of support available to socially isolated anorexics.

The real world of the Ana girls is both secretive and protective, yet this “closedness” becomes open and inclusive online. As CoLeYSkiN says in one post:

No I don’t want my ‘parents noing wot I am doing, but you need to also get out to other ANA girls out there. They are your sisters. This is the point of ANA, that is the point of these sites … to tell others, to help others, to spread the WORD!

Hunger-Hurts also refers to the idea of sisterhood:

Really being Ana … being true, isn’t just about saying ‘I don’t eat, look how cool I am’ there are plenty of noobs who do that. But my site is about spreading the word, letting people know what we believe in and protecting what we want to do. We believe that thin is beautiful, and no one has the right to tell us otherwise. Who will protect my sisters if I am not here?

Accounts like this are illustrative rather than exhaustive; they illuminate the choices these young people make. In particular these identities can be seen as a marker of passage from a dominant culture that is critical, often displaying horror and disgust, in favour of regaining authenticity through inverting what is “normal”.

Pro-ana sites act as an arena through which transgressive body narratives can be explored. “Thinspiration” (symbolic objects that encourage anorexic behaviours) is an important aspect. This usually takes the form of photographs, although on some websites it may also include poems, stories or pieces of music. Celebrity images are by far the most popular. At a mundane level, these (often posed) images function in much the same way that Jazzsimpleez uses Gok Wan to legitimise the anorexic form:

You ever seen that ‘how to look good naked’ on TV? This fashion designer Gok Wan finds these really fat women and helps them get comfortable with their bodies. These are seriously fat women, that’s not healthy either, but no one mentions that, so when he does it it’s somehow ok. Well we’re just like Gok, but in reverse. We help people feel good about being thin, but we get crucified for it.

It is important to note that not everyone who has become involved with Ana websites sees the experience so positively. There have been accusations that the virtual environment pushes young people further than they might go on their own.

Subverting the clinical position

Most sites also act as a resource in the creation of the Ana body and contain “tips and tricks” sections with important information for anorexics, including calorie content of foods, the rates that different forms of exercise burn food, reducing the health effects of binging. What is interesting here is that this often subverts the clinical position that has sought to define Ana as problematic through being ill-informed.

Far from being ignorant of health matters, pro-ana sites have amassed a wealth of clinical information that supports its activities: “People say being pro-ana means we don’t know anything about food. I know a lot about food – I just don’t want to eat it.” (Pear Girl)

And as Hunger Hurts says: “You don’t just get an ana body, it needs crafting. You have to know what you are doing.”

Importantly, these pro-ana environments are social spaces that provide ideal arenas in which adult norms and values are rejected and new expressions of order are established. In this way, a pro-ana subculture can be seen as a community that gives belonging, recognition of positive self-value, a sense of empowerment, a subculture that valorises resistance expressed through being transgressive. It promotes a culture in which the body itself, and its modification, becomes a medium through which marginal identities can be articulated. And in this way pro-ana advocates hope to transform a medical condition into something more akin to self-expression, freedom and control.

Bodies – whether virtual or material – are not neutral objects. As such they are important, and sometimes contested, sites of social and cultural meaning. Since the body shapes identity – in terms of how it is expressed through look, dress, actions – it also shapes the way that we form and participate within social relationships.

The clinical impact from anorexia is clear – it can cause irreparable damage or worse. But we also need to look at how young people are using this to create and configure identities. And for education professionals and clinicians, it may be key to understanding how some young people feel about anorexia.

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