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Starving for it

in Acid & Base/Featured by

“Healthy isn’t better. Skinny is.”

I was convinced that I would never again discover anything on the internet that could shock me. I was finally inured and immune. This age of light-in-every-dark-corner is beyond eclipse, even if one does desire a blindfold at times. So, to stumble across a site, a mere blog, that could inexpressibly unsettle me was a surprise.

I will not name the site. It is easy enough to seek out and, I have discovered, in no way unique, nor even rare. The blog is part of a – can I call it a movement? subculture? cult? Part of a growing community and philosophy with the deceptively innocuous moniker of ‘pro-ana’.

I won’t further drag out the preamble. ‘Pro-ana’ is short-speak for ‘pro-anorexia’.

The little blog of horrors

At first glance, the blog is typical. Well laid out and organized, with a text block to upper left offering some info about the site’s owner and principal voice. It was here that my what-the-hell bells started clanging. The din would only increase as I explored further.

“It’s so nice to know that the starving has paid off lately! This morning when I woke up I could finally count my ribs again. Ah, I’ve missed those babies!”

This info block was a warning shot. Here the young author advised that if you did not like what she had to say, you could fuck right off. As well, if you did not agree with the mandate of her blog, you ought give no less consideration to fucking right off. To wit, it was her life, and her body, and she’d do with it as she damn well pleased, and if you did not like it, well, off thou must fucketh.

Now, usually, I’d be all for the above. I’m big on people having autonomy over decisions that affect only themselves. I’m all for full disclosure, uncensored opinion, riling the rubes and stirring the silt. But this was not about controversial opinion or taking a stand against the unreasonable. This was a young girl starving herself in public, arm in virtual arm with fellow fanatical fasters all over the world. This was a goddamned clearing house of advice on how to maintain a personal famine and not get caught. This was a photo album of emaciated females who would not look out of place in a concentration camp and it was titled, screaming elder gods, it was called ‘Thinspiration’.

The bubble bursts

All the quotes accompanying this piece are from pro-ana websites or comments on articles about this ‘movement’. (There is also an equivalent for bulimics called pro-mia, but I will stick with pro-ana as inclusive.) If nary a word I’ve written causes you to examine your circle, your friends, children, partners, for such behaviour, if nothing else in this column causes you distress or unnerves you, or it’s just too bloody long to read (and my thanks to the Indy’s editors for giving me plenty of elbow room here), then my hope is that those quotes alone can stir you.

“you dont know what its like to dread looking in the mirror and want to rip your self to shreds because you are ugly and fat, and engulfed in guilt and self disgust because you step on the scale and see that youve gotten 2lbs uglier, we need to never be controled by food and only after we are skinny we will be worth anything let alone being loved”

There is no chance of me addressing all the symptoms, effects, causes and solutions (even were it possible to nail down the latter two) of eating disorders. Information is readily available, and there are professionals far better educated and equipped to help. What motivated my mental spit-take is the perverse spin on the support group; this community, if not cult, of starvation. It is horrifying in the same way that websites run by adolescents offering one another tips on attracting pedophiles would be. Think that’s an extreme example? Think again. Eating disorders scar, cripple and sometimes kill. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, with an estimated 10% of afflicted individuals dying within ten years of onset.

I have witnessed enough eating disorders in action to know the dire effects and how difficult it is to disable that mindset. An ex-girlfriend was bulimic. I had a friend who committed herself as a result of anorexia nervosa. I witnessed it as source of both pain and solace; as an addiction, something that produced a release, a high. What I, in my bubble, had not been aware of was this subset of (mostly) girls who see it as something to embrace, and to which to aspire.

Seeking acceptance; avoiding judgment

Best I can tell, those who seek out pro-ana sites do so to find understanding and acceptance. Reinforcement. No one judging. No condemnation. No whisper of words like ‘illness’ and ‘disease’. This is suicidal social support. Some of the sites even appear to be bolstering recovery from an eating disorder, but in reality disguise pro-ana messages as ‘healthy’ eating advice. How many of those recovering from such a disorder are drawn back in by that deception?

“When did it become your business what we do to OUR bodies? Besides, bones are beautiful, and I would rather starve myself to death than become fat.”

The users of these online support groups share crash dieting techniques and recipes; advise one another on using laxatives and emetics; fast together in displays of solidarity; commiserate after binging. They trade tips on hiding weight loss from parents and doctors and how to reduce the side-effects of malnutrition. They post their weights, measurements, even pictures of their diminishing selves to solicit affirmation. Perhaps my favourite was a blog piece, with many grateful comments, on how best to suppress those pesky hunger pangs. Smoking is a favored technique, if you’re curious. (And, by ‘favourite’, I mean instilled in me the urge to reach through my monitor and shake the everlovin’ fuck out of somebody.)

A female perspective

I discussed this with several of the wise women in my life. It seemed essential before tackling it to acquire feedback from them.

Colette, an actor familiar with the pressures of appearance, posited that some girls might be trying to delay the inevitable transition from girl to woman. Can the fear of adulthood, with the concomitant pressures of being discovered by the opposite sex, be so enormous? She continued with the suggestion that some starve themselves so that the symbols of womanhood – hips, breasts, menstruation – are held at bay. Perhaps staying in a child’s body is easier for some. I honestly do not know. I do know that I am grateful I do not have any daughters. Gods, I’d be a wreck.

“It’s scary to you because you spend your life beleiving in “science” and “disorder.” It’s the only thing that’s not scary in this world, the one thing you can depend on. It’s hard sometimes but the joy, the accomplishment when the scale drops 15 pounds, it’s admirable, it’s beautiful, it’s powerful.”

Brandi, twenty-something and one of my best friends, felt strongly that such behaviour, especially when manifesting at a very early age, could be traced to some manner of abuse, and there is data to buttress this. A 2005 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that girls abused before the age of sixteen were twice as likely to develop eating disorders. A particularly startling stat indicates that they are increasingly common in nine to twelve year old girls. While I will not pretend it is more than speculation, it strikes me that the rejection of oncoming sexuality and sexual appeal, as well as a need to control something, anything, would be of import to a child upon whom the sickening attentions of an adult have been forced.

And Lynn, also in her twenties, offered this: “The control aspect makes a twisted sort of sense to me. When your body starts changing, it changes how people look at you and you somehow become public property. [These girls] are taking back their bodies. I don’t agree with how they’re doing it, but the scariest part is that I can see how they made that leap. If you can find a community to support you in whatever you do or think, that normalizes it. It’s the same principle behind NAMBLA or Fox News.”

The body as jurisdiction

If you’ve been reading the quotes running alongside, you’ve detected a pattern. Lynn pointed it out. A flashing, neon-lit keyword: control. Control where none else exists.

Another part of the pro-ana strategy is to consider themselves part of an oppressed (or at least, misunderstood) minority. Key themes are strength, will, and achievement. Eating disorders are depicted as a path to perfection, of becoming part of an elite group who have successfully conquered their bodies. Untrammelled hostility is levelled at the non-eating-disordered who dare to appear on their sites to express disapproval or offer well-meaning counsel. The deluded dieters or fitness junkies, who join the pro-ana ranks in the belief that inducing eating disorders will help them more effectively lose weight, are derisively referred to as ‘wannarexics’.

“In such a messed up world, control of myself is the only way out. I control everything I eat. I eat less than 800 calories a day. I do NOT need more than that. At 17 yrs of age, at 103 pounds, I want to weigh less because it is a necessity. I do NOT have an ED. I am merely a girl who wishes to regain control. And of course be thin.”

As deluded and irrational as this all seems, these girls (for the most part; roughly a tenth of anorexics are male) are not the mindless inane. The texts on these blogs are often eloquent. They write treatises on rejecting mainstream values and rebelling against conformity (as though the pursuit of a mythical and externally imposed ideal were in any way nonconformist). What is more sadly ironic than a coterie of bright young people diminishing their bodies and potency, all in the name of strength?

Creepy catechisms

I found many unsettling words, ideas and photographs while accumulating material for this column. But little alarmed me as much as my discovery of a text titled ‘The Ana Creed’. A fucking creed. Mantra, philosophy, dogma and article of faith. Can I get off the planet here? I believe this is my stop.

I won’t provide the entire text, but here are two of its tenets:

  • I believe in Control, the only force mighty enough to bring order to the chaos that is my world.
  • I believe in a wholly black and white world, the losing of weight, recrimination for sins, the abnegation of the body and a life everfasting.

‘Life everfasting’. I’d admire the pun if it did not horrify me so.

“As any ana will tell you, we like control. We control our bodies, what goes into them, what comes out. Do you think that we would rather be put in the ‘diseased’ pile? One, we love control, two, we can’t stop and three, if we admit we can’t stop then we admit we have no control – therefore it becomes a ‘choice’.“

I stumbled across other, similar affirmations. The Ana Psalm (“Strict is my diet, I must not want, it maketh me to lie down at night hungry”) is one. To further encumber this mindset with dogmatic baggage, I encountered at least three instances in which young girls justified the ‘lifestyle’ with the example set by the Jesus of the Gospels. You see, Christ starved himself for forty days and nights, and even stated that we shall not live by bread alone, so what’s the prob? It congeals into some perverse form of anti-communion: “Do not take, nor eat, for this is thy (gross and disgusting) body”.

Now you know

It might strike some that this is nought but a middle-aged male – whose biggest problem with food is whether to make the Cajun or white wine sauce – sitting smugly in judgment. It is not. Yes, my dismay and revulsion at the very concept of young people being encouraged in their self-destruction are here, intentionally and, I hope, quite unmistakably. My purpose, however, is not to demean or mock these young people but to crank up a bigass spotlight and turn some heads in the direction of this online community. To make you ponder whether there’s a girl, or woman, in your life who might be an acolyte.

“Ana IS a life style choice…We are all going to die but girls who DECIDE to be Ana just decide that when they die they are going to be thin.”

We are all aware of eating disorders but, as with all mental and emotional illnesses, it’s easy to let them fade into the background static of life. Discovering a culture that embraces the illness, that plays coy with its classifications and tries to lump it with lifestyle and counterculture and community, effectively isolates that frequency. Picture your response if you had stumbled across websites espousing teen suicide and, let’s face it, this pro-ana bullshit could easily become precisely that. ‘Pro-Ana, Stage II: How To Fit Into A Size 0 Casket’.

“At a certain weight you’ll lose your period. This is good because it means you’re losing weight. Don’t let your mother find out because she will take you to the doctor. Never tell a doctor you’ve lost your period. Make sure you have a believable date to tell them in case they ask about your last period.”

Maladjusted standards of sex appeal. Fear of womanhood. Coping with abuse. Need for control. Whatever the causes, surely something so vile and intentionally self-destructive demands our attention. Loving them is not enough. Hugs won’t fix this. Friends, partners, parents, must all find a way to convey and, far more difficult, convince that it is the justification for their disease and addiction that is thin.

“One day I will be thin enough. No disfiguring flesh. Just the pure clear shape of me, bones. That is what we all are, what we’re made up of and everything else is just storage, deposit, waste. Strip it away. Use it up.”

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