30 April 2021
[Trigger Warning: Eating disorders]
“I feel less alone when I’m here.”
Anonymous, pro-ana site
The ‘pro-ana’, or pro-anorexia community attracts a disproportionate amount of controversy for a relatively small online presence. This community- i.e. the users of pro-anorexia forums or social media accounts- are considered to encourage eating disorders, which can be easily triggered and have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness in Australia. It’s safe to say the friends and family of eating disorder sufferers wish these sites didn’t exist.
The policy and public responses to niche internet communities such as Reddit are increasingly indicting that the pendulum of free speech is swinging in favour of limitations, or even censorship, where a line is crossed. This can include conversations that lead to doxxing, hate speech, and the dissemination of conspiracy theories. With horrific outcomes such as the Christchurch massacre (where the perpetrator had been active in online spaces that shared his beliefs), it can hardly be denied that words have consequences, and that some voices deserve to be silenced.
But what happens when a group is not hurting others, but themselves? And what really goes on pro-ana forums?
I created an account find out and try to understand why a community of unwell people would want to promote their disorders*.
The first thing that struck me was that the pro-ana site was not solely populated the stereotypical teenage-girl anorexic. And while it’s difficult to know for sure (many members used avatars and pseudonyms), it was seemed clear that boys, men, mothers and students all join the conversation, with topics ranging from anorexia to bulimia and binge-eating disorder.
Scrolling through the forum, I came across a handful of particularly disturbing posts, such as threads that encouraged users to “motivate each other” by posting the number of calories they’d had that day. Then there was the chat about the “easiest and hardest foods to purge.” But most shocking for me was; “Just purged for the first time. SO excited. Feel so good.”
It’s highly upsetting to experience a person’s illness in real time. But the responses to this post were surprising.
“Omg stop if you can. Bulimia is hell.”
“I wish I never started. I have spent sooo much money on dental work and my skin looks like shit. And I didn’t lose any weight.”
“I wish I hadn’t started.”
“It’s addictive, stop if you can.”
Another thread begins:
“Just B&P [binged and purged]. I feel revolting, don’t know what to do with myself.”
And again, the feedback was actually…helpful? Participants suggested the OP (original poster) clean up all the food remaining, go for a walk, drink some water. Most of all, they wanted to reassure her that they had been there too.
From what I could see, these two conversations weren’t out of the ordinary. While I’m conscious of minimising the harm that occurs from posts that do encourage dangerous behaviour, it appeared to me that a side to these spaces not many people know about is that people suffering use them as a place to confide, as much as encourage disorders.
For the record, I’d never advocate for pro-ana sites. I think that even a small amount of harm can outweigh the good for such a dangerous, and psychologically complex illness. But what I do believe after this experience, is that the existence of these communities suggest that something is seriously lacking in the way that eating disorders are treated.
While Australia does have some excellent resources which can and do help sufferers, overall there is huge problem with accessibility. This was, of course, been exacerbated by the government’s decision to cut funding to The Butterfly Foundation; the only eating disorder-dedicated support service in Australia.
The other uncomfortable fact is that the availability of treatment options is meaningless where sufferers are not ready to recover. These are illnesses that involve an incredible amount of secrecy and isolation. And does any person, sick or well, deserve to feel isolated and alone?
Maybe we shouldn’t be blaming the users of this site for the harm they represent, when our inadequate response to mental health problems could be what’s drawn the community together in the first place.
*I was upfront and shared the reason I was using the site with people involved in this “research.”
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