Slate journalist Amanda Hess released an article today entitled “Let Them Blog” discussing why “the panic over pro-anorexia websites and social media isn’t healthy.” Her article talks about the function behind the form, and how vilifying a very grey area of self-expression ultimately nets more harm than good. She does an excellent job analyzing the nuance that “pro-ana” has evolved into over the past decade or so, and I highly recommend reading the entire piece for yourself.
Especially since, as someone who struggled with anorexia for about a decade and had to fight pretty fucking hard for her current three years of solid recovery, I agree.
The panic over the proliferation of pro-ana and pro-mia sites isn’t healthy. Mass cultural freak-out over the existence of twelve-year-olds and seventeen-year-olds and twenty-four-year-olds launching a wordpress page or even entire forums to give vent to the mind-chewing of their internal delusional demons is some seriously misdirected fear. Terrified of these internet shrines to life with the disease? How about we shift that feeling to being terrified of the disease itself.
Shutting down these sites won’t shut down the eating disorder, after all. And these testaments to life as a slow death from fucked caloric addition only exist because generally, culturally, their hosts and their visitors in their search for relief have found nothing better.
Once upon a time, I was very, very eating disordered. And once upon a time, I visited these sites, too.
I was not the most religious of visitors, and it was a fairly long road that finally got me peeking at that corner of the internet. I’d known about pro-ana sites for years before I ever visited one. It was a marker, for me, of my decline into the disorder. I’d gone from restricting for reasons my brain had generated all on its own while I really had no clue what I was doing, or that I even was doing any sort of something, to eventually having the label for it all tossed at me – by my mother or a health professional or some after-school special, I don’t really remember – to embracing the label as yes, the proper term for the beast of internal mis-wiring that I was fighting.
Or riding. Depended on the year.
I was already an adult, in college, by the time I first visited a pro-ana site. I was slowly, quietly slipping back from the “surviving” end of the health spectrum towards the “dying at an alarmingly faster rate than usual” side of things. I’d been drowning in the disease long enough that I wasn’t out looking for all those “tips and tricks” of the trade. I’d gotten them down quite well by then, thank you very much. No, my brain was out looking not for self-carving fuel but for the ever-so-slight-sense of thickening that is validation.
A very strange, warped sort of validation, sure.
But the sentiment was at least more self-affirming than eating disorders usually allow for.
I was struggling. And I wanted to embrace that struggle. Confirm it, I guess. I couldn’t go throwing my dysfunction at my friends – worrying other people was not what I was out for – but I wanted something that would strike some resonance in me, instead of just hollowing out further my ever-growing emptiness.
So I wandered my way through the pro-ana selection. Clicked through a few narratives. Poured over stories of other people’s decline into our shared brand of madness. Read about other people’s fasts and weight loss and body-whittling and mind-mangling.
And at the end of it, having glutted myself with proof of the vast existence of the disease, I felt… better.
Did I want to lose weight? Yes. Did I want thinner thighs? Sharpened collar bones? Yes. Did I want to feel the slow cloak of a self-destructing existence tighten even more around my suffocating life? You betcha.
But surprise, surprise – it’s because I’d already felt that way before.
I felt the same way, before and after perusing those pro-ana sites. But afterwards, those feelings, they felt less imminent. Less pressing. Less I-need-to-do-something-about-them-right-now.
Because while I still felt all those terrible, terrible things, I also felt less alone. Less strange. Less crazy. Less like something that had gone horribly, horribly wrong and was now an abomination compared to the rest of humanity.
I had been shown, in thousands and thousands of Google search results, that I was not the only one who felt this way.
“This way” was a complicated thing, too. Eating disorders are very much like abusive partners – you love them, you hate them, they do things for you in one area of your life while cutting you off from so many others. And somewhere along the line of the nauseating emotional flip-flop, you convince yourself that you can’t tell anyone else about it.
There, in those pro-eating disorder corners of the internet, you tell people about it.
And these people, they understand. Because they’ve got that abusive partner, too. They understand that you can’t “just leave.” They understand the good and the bad of it. They understand the hook. They understand the fear. They understand how to leave you, this broken thing making horrible decisions, feeling slightly less like someone who’s already dead. Validation. Empathy. And eye contact that doesn’t hold judgment or fear or condescension in it, because to them you are not some strange, sick, alien thing. You are them.
I’ve seen quite a few treatment professionals in my time. Therapists. Psychiatrists. Dietitians. Without them, I’d probably be dead now. I needed them, these people on the outside, in order to break out of the secluded, inwardly-collapsing world of my disorder. I needed them to call me out on my shit. I needed them to help show me what “better” was.
But kind and diligent and sympathetic as most of them were, those with only a clinical understanding of what I was going through could never really reach me when I crawled into the darkest of my brain’s corners. They had never been there, themselves. They didn’t know. Their attempts to pry me out often boiled down to essentially trying to shame me out of my darkened corner. Shame and guilt, as it turns out, are less than the best of incentives to use when fighting a disease of shame and guilt.
And yet I know that even still, I was one of the lucky ones. I had to fight my insurance tooth and nail for it, but I at least got treatment, and at the appropriate level of care for most of the time. I managed to find the centers with staff that actually knew what they were doing. I had enough of a support network around me that I could manage the luxury of garnering a team to help me fight my battle.
Not everyone has that ability. Not everyone has those friends. Or that money. Or the insurance. Or the time. Or the community resources. And even then, treatment – whether it’s due to the center or the staff or the structure of the health care system – fails a lot of people.
And so there is the internet.
The internet will not tell you that you are not recovering fast enough, and so you can no longer be in treatment. The internet will not tell you that you are recovering too quickly, and so you can no longer be in treatment. The internet will not tell you that there is no money, so you cannot enter treatment. The internet will not tell you that there are no treatment providers in your area, and so you cannot get help. The internet will not tell you that it is your mother, or your father, and you should just suck it up and stop disappointing them. The internet will not tell you that your pain makes no sense. The internet will not tell you that your pain is too much for it to hear, so you should just suck it up and pretend like nothing is wrong. The internet will not tell you that it does not understand.
The internet will tell you that it does understand, all too well.
And while yes, pro-ana and pro-mia websites will drive some people further into their disorder, if the websites didn’t exist, those people would still have found fuel for their decline elsewhere. Eating disorders will get what they need. It’s the people underneath them that don’t.
If pro-ana and pro-mia websites, these hosts of people’s shared pain, are so damn popular, it’s because they are better than those people’s current alternatives.
That is what we should be panicking about.
Don’t want so many pro-eating disorder sites? Until there are enough other accessible, effective resources to help people deal with what’s eating them alive, they’re going to stick around.
So give us something better.