An Eating Disorder Online Community and the Pro-Ana Subculture

anti_pro_ana_by_francesballard-d331la3

“Every time you say ‘no thanks’ to food, you say ‘yes please’ to thin.” This is a saying that appears on various eating disorders (E.D.s) sites. An ‘anorexic lifestyle’ has gained certain popularity among many young women particularly in the Western world. Various E.D.s sites are created primarily by young women who have anorexia or bulimia, or are in recovery from eating disorders, with the aim of promoting and supporting anorexia nervosa as a lifestyle choice. Nowadays, Anorexic lifestyle has thrived as Internet subculture, the “Pro-Ana” (pro-anorexia) Subculture. Why are these E.D.s online communities established? What is the role of E.D.s community in the development of Pro-Ana subculture? These are the questions this blog post tries to explore.

A popular E.D.s forum is studied to understand why the online community establishes and how participants interact with each other. As the forum is not public, participants need to register and log-in to read the threads or take part in the conversation. And one rule of the community is, once registered, you are digitally certifying that you have eating disorder and are of legal age. For research reasons, an account is registered to gain entry to the community and to collect data. In order to protect participants’ privacy, quotations are paraphrased.

How does the community establish?

The studied E.D.s community was founded in the U.S. There are more than 8000 members, a majority of which are young women aged 15 to 30. Most members come from the Western world, which coincides with the fact that women in the Western world are at the highest risk of developing eating disorders [1].

The community is only open to people who are suffering from eating disorders and it takes a neutral stance on illness and recovery. Thus everyone is equally accepted and supported no matter whether they choose to seek recovery or not. The community admits that eating disorders are illnesses that should not be glorified, but it also recognizes the difficulty of letting go of them. So the choice of whether or not to recover is left to the individual themselves. The community includes not only recovery-oriented information, but also themes related to solidarity and control. Moreover, it tries to maintain a friendly and supportive environment. Hostile and hurtful comments are not allowed. To protect users’ privacy, users can choose whether to show their personal profile to other members. Visitors cannot see any content of posts or contact data of users without registration. In a word, the community is a safe and supportive place where individuals living with eating disorders can express themselves without being judged. As member A says in a comment: “This community is awesome! It is soooo good to talk freely without anyone jumping down one’s throat!” Another member B expresses similar opinion: “I am so happy to find this place! Finally I can talk in a safe place and get those feelings out. ” Being respected and having a sense of security are important reasons to choose the community.

Interaction in the community

The E.D.s community underlines connectedness and responsiveness and values honesty, open-mindedness and support. It highlights its rule of “Please be kind and respectful” at the top of the home page. According to my observation, users are very helpful and kind. Since they are usually sensitive themselves, they try to take others very seriously and not to be judgemental or biased. They are very careful about wording when they comment. The most popular theme in the forum is Personal Progress Journals which is about life, goals and progress. Users will get many replies if they manage to keep the journal. Comments are often positive and supportive. Most common expressions are “I’m sorry to hear that you…”, “I know it is stressful but I’m here for you…”, etc. Emoticons such as hug, smile are also used to be friendly and encourage others. At the bottom of the home page, there is a chat-board. It is interesting to find that users are quite active and responsive. Whenever someone asks “hello?” or “is somebody here?”, there will be answers like “I am here!” or a emoticon of greetings. “Being there” helps users to feel connected and safe. Overall, the users manage to maintain a kind and respectful attitude towards other members of the community.

Reconstruction of self-identity

The forum is not only about information and communication, it is also about identity. From my observation, the E.D.s community can have a great influence on the self-identity of some participants, especially the active users. Living with eating disorders can be very painful and isolated. In real life, participants are often blamed, judged or criticized by parents, doctors, and friends. Since their identities are often not recognized by others, they are easily linked to psychological issues such as depression. In the virtual community, they can connect with the like-minded. As stated above, feedback from the peers are usually positive and supportive. Therefore, users can easily find emotional support and normalize their condition. This is particularly obvious in the personal progress journals. The most common posts and replies are about low-calorie, weight, fast, etc. Users tend to connect their self-identity with their weight closely, and they care about every single change of weight even as small as 0.1kg a day. The replies from other users seem to reinforce this tendency and make users take it as normal.

For users who have not completely realized the danger of anorexia, the confirmation from others can be dangerous because it may strengthen their misconception and defend anorexia as an essential part of their identity. For instance, Member C, a 15 year old girl with anorexia, wrote in her journal about feeling annoyed when her families treat her as “an identified patient” and the most common replies she got are “I can understand”, “same here”, “people just don’t get it”, etc. It can be seen from her subsequent journal that she continued taking in food with less than 800 calories every day and fasting once a week in order to lose more weight even though she was 177 cm tall and weighed around 49kg.

Thus the Pro-ana culture is a controversial and complex issue. Recently, Pro-ana sites have been actively repressed as they are considered dangerous. As the sentence in the picture suggests, “there’s a difference between a lifestyle and something that’s taken over your life.” It is quite difficult to strike a balance between not promoting anorexia nervosa as a lifestyle choice, and respecting people suffering from eating disorders.

References

  1. Cummins, L.H. & Lehman, J. 2007. Eating Disorders and Body Image Concerns in Asian American Women: Assessment and Treatment from a Multi-Cultural and Feminist Perspective. pp217-230.
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