Totally in Control

Perhaps a true challenge to pro-ana sites would be to explode the myth that dietary restrictions are the only fair measure of a person's capacity for self-control. If we continue to equate fat with laziness and thinness with strength and morality, even subconsciously, then the pro-ana movement cannot be blamed for effectively taking this train of thought to its logical conclusion.

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Totally In Control

- The rise of pro-ana/ pro-mia websites.

This is a gathering point for sentient individuals who are working to cause changes to occur in body in conformity to will. There are no victims here. This is not a place for the faint-hearted, weak, hysterical, or those looking to be rescued. This is not a place for those who bow to consensus definitions of reality or who believe in the cancerous fallacy that there is any other authority on earth besides their own incontrovertibly self-evident, inherent birthright to govern themselves. This is a place for the elite who, through personal success in their ongoing quest for perfection, demonstrate daily the power and results of applying will, imagination, creativity and effort toward meeting their goals.
(ana's underground grotto)

Type anorexia or bulimia into an Internet search engine and the results will typically consist of help, information and support for people who are suffering from or know someone who is suffering from an eating disorder. Type in "pro-anorexia", or "pro-ana/pro-mia", and a very different picture emerges. With titles like Starving For Perfection, Anorexic Nation, 2b-Thin and Totally in Control, pro-ana sites are the antithesis of self-help websites for recovering anorexics. So much so that every site has a disclaimer on the front page:

This site does not encourage that you develop an eating disorder. This is a site for those who ALREADY have an eating disorder and do not wish to go into recovery.
If you do not already have an eating disorder, better it is that you do not develop one now. You may wish to leave.
(ana-by-choice.com)

**DiScLaImEr: ThIs iS a PrO-eD SiTe… iF yOu Do NoT hAvE aN eAtInG dIsOrDeR oR aRe YoU aRe In ReCoVeRy YoU sHoUlD NoT vIeW thIs sIte…..i Am NoT ReSpOnSiBLe FoR yOuR aCtIoNs.. LeAvE iF yOu CaNt HaNdLe iT***
(2b Thin)

Pro-ana sites are emphatically not for those who are in recovery, regard themselves as victims, or even regard themselves as ill. They are targeted at those who "believe that the Ana way is the only way to live", who feel that anorexia is the right lifestyle choice for them, and will allow them to achieve happiness and perfection.

Statistically, eating disorders are most common in young women; sufferers are often portrayed as hapless victims of a ruthless consumer culture. Victim is the key word here; it is generally thought that nobody wants to be anorexic, that anorexia is a disease, and that sufferers want to get better. Pro-ana sites turn these preconceptions on their heads. One site goes so far as to distinguish "anorexics" from "rexies", the idea being that if you identify yourself as an "anorexic" then the site is not for you:

"You may already know the difference between us rexies and anorexics! If u want sympathy for your "disease", you are anorexic. If you want respect and admiration for your lifestyle of choice, you are a rexie. Anorexics die. Rexies don't. Have we understood the difference? This site is for us rexies, who are proud of our accomplishments, and the accomplishments that lie ahead. we will never die."
(Rexia-World)

The emphasis is moved from self-destruction to self-control; in the words of one "rexie", "A good ana doesn't die". If you are using anorexia as a means of self-destruction then, according to these girls, you simply aren't doing it right. Key ideas are strength, will, achievement, fulfilment; eating disorders are portrayed as a means of achieving perfection and of forming an elite, a group of humans who have successfully "mastered" or "governed" their bodies.

Unsurprisingly, these claims to strength, independence and health fail to ring true when a small but significant minority of sites are left unattended because their controller is "having to take it easy for a bit" or "has gone into recovery". In one case, an online journal, message board and support group was being maintained from a hospital bed. In light of this, the protestation "we will never die" sounds more like a cry of rebellion than a promise.

While a number of sites claim to subscribe to the view that good anorexics "don't go too far", some contain material that would suggest the opposite. Almost all have a "thinspiration" picture gallery, displaying photographs of stick-thin models and ana beauty ideals. Most feature Kate Moss at her thinnest and a decidedly emaciated Jodie Kidd as examples of "perfection". A significant minority go further, providing pictures of women in the last stages of anorexia, hollow-cheeked and utterly fleshless. Pro-ana artwork is similarly varied. One picture in particular, which appears on a number of sites, features a fairy-like, unearthly creature amid a mass of psychedelic blue swirls. The caption reads:

will not eat

"Infinity is so damn sweet
Your mortal earth cannot compete
Starving for the other shore
I will not eat!
Say it loud
& say it now
I'm anorexic
& I'm proud."
(ana's underground grotto)

This kind of material renders the noisy preaching of the gospel of "empowerment" by the rexie-sisterhood crew a distasteful joke. Pro-ana websites are a mass of contradictions; with every supportive post on a bulletin board about the dangers of excessive purging ("try washing your mouth out with bicarbonate of soda afterwards, it'll protect your teeth from the acid in your puke"), there is another entitled "Please somebody help me", "I really need to die" or "My parents are forcing me to go to hospital and I'm scared I'll get fat".

Despite extensive media coverage, an air of mystery still hangs around pro-ana/ pro-mia websites. This is perhaps because the most basic questions about their existence are often ignored in favour of more sensational material. The following questions and answers are an attempt to make sense of the wealth of contradictory material that is the web based pro-ana/pro-mia movement.

What does pro-ana/pro-mia mean?

What is new about the message projected by pro-ana sites?

Are militant pro-ana sites primarily concerned with self-harm?

Why do some anorexics visit pro-ana sites rather than seek help and support from their family, friends or doctor?

Are pro-ana sites being censored?

Pro-ana sites pose a problem for non-anorexics. They especially pose a problem for those who care for someone with an eating disorder. This is because they allow people with eating disorders to get together and support each other in their struggle to achieve their goals, not towards recovery but towards thinness, "perfection", and "the perfect body". Knowledge of their existence entails a dilemma – is it ethically acceptable to allow sites which encourage unrealistic aspiration towards self-destructive goals to continue to function? We may as well censor the pages of the major fashion glossies, with their features on "How star x slimmed to x stone one month after the birth of her first child", or "The latest diets to help you fight the flab". Fashion magazines will often provide advice on exercise and "healthy" eating alongside pictures of genuinely underweight models, many of who appear on the "thinspiration" sections of pro-ana websites. To censor pro-ana sites in the face of this kind of material seems hypocritical, to say the least. Yet the feeling that there is something "not quite right", maybe even immoral, about their continued existence persists.

Contrary to popular misconception, volitional anorexics possess the most iron-cored, indomitable wills of all. Our way is not that of the weak.
If we ever completely tapped that potential in our midst, and applied it to other areas outside eating habits and body sculpting, the fact is, we could change the world.
Completely.
Maybe even rule it.
Is THAT what they are so afraid of? .Could it simply be that those who wield their pathetic little naked-emperor reign so irresponsibly and selfishly do NOT want word getting out to "the masses" of how simple a matter it is to throw off their chains and exist self-directed?"
(ana's underground grotto)

This voice is articulate, strong, and most of all rebellious. In borrowed political rhetoric, the anorexic's impulse to control is inflated into a quality that could change the world. It is fair to argue that the anorexic capacity for will power and self-control is truly remarkable. If harnessed for different purposes, that capacity could arguably produce some impressive results. However, it is unlikely that any anorexic, before recovery, would be capable of devoting the same level of time and attention to any area other than their own weight control.

The anorexic's dedication and perfectionism is born of obsession, which is in itself a product of various highly complex factors, internal and external. To interpret anorexia as a demonstration of nothing more than admirable self-control is to subscribe to the myth perpetuated by the pro-ana movement that anorexia is a display of strength, rather than illness.

The answer to the pro-ana challenge, "Is THAT what they are so afraid of?" would have to be a resounding "NO". We are not scared that anorexics will take over the world. We are not scared that their eating habits will expose the "pathetic little naked-emperor reign" of non-obsessional eating for what it "really is". What is scary is the way that pro-ana sites present themselves as having some kind of political content. The pro-ana movement is its own cause celebre; pro-ana websites portray anorexics as an oppressed minority, rather than a group of unwell young people. To be anorexic is to subscribe to an alternative lifestyle, to reject standard values, to rebel against everything. But what could be more conformist than to render yourself weak and helpless through self-denial, to reduce the very substance of yourself in pursuit of an externally imposed model of "perfection"? Anorexia could be described as pathological conformity; as Naomi Wolf puts it in The Beauty Myth, "Dieting is the ultimate in being careful, and checking into a hunger camp offers the ultimate in care." To present eating disorders as counter-culture, rebellion through calorie counting, is a dangerous fallacy, as testimonies from recovering anorexics and those close to them would show.

Anorexia is not a lifestyle choice. It is an illness. The pro-ana claims to political minority status are disturbing and delusional. That is not to suggest that anorexics, even pro-anorexics, should be deprived of a platform on which to communicate. Censorship of pro-ana sites is inappropriate and ineffective, especially when the infinitely more disturbing material that can be found on the web – pro-handgun lobbies, cam girl sites, fascist propaganda – is considered. What is worrying is not the existence of pro-ana sites, but the way that these sites present eating disorders as an alternative lifestyle choice, and encourage both those who suffer and those who don't to subscribe to that myth. The softer sites use the language of "girl-power", the more militant sites use the language of Marx. Both display the horrific irony of women rendering themselves weaker in the name of strength.

Perhaps a true challenge to pro-ana sites would be to explode the myth that dietary restrictions are the only fair measure of a person's capacity for self-control. If we continue to equate fat with laziness and thinness with strength and morality, even subconsciously, then the pro-ana movement cannot be blamed for effectively taking this train of thought to its logical conclusion. As long as it is considered normal to speak of food in dualist terms – sinful, wicked, good, pure – then the quasi-religious philosophy of the pro-ana movement can be justified.

"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."
(Anorexic Nation)

We have hopefully developed beyond the time of fasting female saints, when self-starvation was lauded as a sign of religious purity. We have no need, therefore, of the accompanying concept that thinness is a sign of personal rectitude. Maybe this is why pro-ana sites are so very disturbing. What they reveal is nothing new; existing trains of thought about food are magnified by obsession, not newly invented. Their philosophy is based on overblown versions of preconceptions that can be found in any glossy women's magazine.

Pro-ana sites force us to confront these preconceptions by forcing them into our faces. Why is eating only fruit for a week dangerous if it's a diet but ok if it's a detox? Why is the Atkins diet a safe and healthy way to "slim up for summer" when it causes acne and constipation? We should be glad of the insights that pro-ana websites offer us into the anorexic psyche. Not only do they allow non-sufferers a new perspective on eating disorders, but also they reveal some of the delusions and hypocrisies that underlie accepted attitudes towards food and dieting. Perhaps it would be more constructive to tackle our own preconceptions about weight before publicly condemning pro-ana sites for their encouragement of delusional and dangerous aspirations.