Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Pro-Ana and Me

Why Am I Writing?

Let’s get one thing straight, right now. I am not anorexic. Never have been, and hopefully never will. I don’t even consider myself Pro-Ana. However, like most women in the world, there are parts of my body that I don’t like, and insecurities about how I look. I have 34 DD breasts that I quash into minimizing bras, trying to make them look more like 34 Cs. I’m not a fan of the love handles on my hips, and I can’t remember the last time I rocked a bikini. I have a personal trainer who I see once a week, and I go to the gym another three to four times a week. I read every diet tip and trick in every magazine. I still love food, and eat what I want without feeling guilty.  I think I’m healthy, and that I look pretty damn good.

So, how did I get here? Writing a blog about Pro-Ana? As Ned Vizzini would write, it’s kind of a funny story. In April, I was 155 pounds. I didn’t look that big, but I felt heavy, sluggish, and not sexy. On top of this, I was told by my OB/GYN that my birth control may fail if I wasn’t under 150 pounds. So, I decided to change my life. I started jogging, eating better. To date, I’ve lost 15 pounds, a dress size, and two pant sizes. I work with all women, and most have been very positive about my weight loss. One women, however, asked me if I stopped eating. At first, I was offended and shocked. Even though the other girls have told me not to worry about her, the comment bounced around in my head for weeks. Slowly, I started thinking about anorexia. I wondered, is there such a thing as becoming anorexic by choice?

When I danced in middle school, I remembered talk about sites that “teach girls to be anorexic”, and on a whim, I Googled the term “anorexia tips”. Hundreds of thousands of sites popped up. Some were about the dangers of anorexia nervosa as a mental illness, meant to educate and scare people into eating. But more were a kind of celebration of the super skinny style. As I bounced from one Pro-Ana site to another, I found myself having more questions then answers. Who is Anamdim? What makes someone Pro-Ana? Is there a difference between Pro-Ana, anorexia, and the media? Are Pro-Ana girls happy? Thinspiration? Reverse thinspiration? Disgusted, I couldn’t look away.

The more I read, the more interested and confused I became. Here was a whole subculture of people banding together in defiance of doctors, loved ones, and biological imperative to be as rail thin as possible. Thus, Staring at Mermaids was born. This is my journey into the heart of the Pro-Ana/Pro-Mia life style and culture. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.

Staring at... Mermaids? Why Mermaids?

In Greek mythology, the mermaid is a symbol of temptation and desire. They are women with the lower torsos of fish, who lure sailors to their death by singing beautiful songs that drive the sailors insane. In Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, the mermaid is a creature that gives up her voice and endures great pain in order to become something better. In the end, the mermaid is lifted up out of the water and becomes air itself. I can think of no better way to describe those who are Pro-Ana. They desire to become something better by enduring suffering, with the hope of one day becoming so light as to float away.

Seriously - What Is Pro-Ana?

According to Wikipedia, Pro-Ana stands for “promotion of the eating disorder of anorexia nervosa”. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) states that Pro-Ana sites "can pose a serious threat to some individuals, not simply because they promote eating disorder behaviors, but because they build a sense of community that is unhealthy. They lure the impressionable and persuade them that the Pro-Ana community is providing caring and nurturing advice.” In France, the Union for a Popular Movement party has tried twice to pass bills that outlaw martial that “provokes a person to seek excessive thinness by encouraging prolonged restriction of nourishment”.

Although, even if France does ban material that promotes “excessive thinness”, fasting for purity and as a show of devotion is an idea that has been around since Biblical times. In the Old Testament, Moses fasted forty days and nights while he waited for the Ten Commandments. Queen Easter fasted for three days before going to King Ahasuerus to beg for the life of her people. In the New Testament, Anna, the prophet who proclaimed Jesus was the Messiah regularly fasted in the Temple. Today, hunger strikes draw attention to a cause or a problem. Pretty much major religions have fast days - Catholics during Lent fast, as well as deprive themselves of foods they enjoy. Jews fast on Yom Kippur for atonement. In the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims eat only at night. Some Pro-Ana sites carry this idea as well, with quotes such as -
  • “Nothing takes as good as skinny feels” (Kate Moss)
  • “Quod me nutrit, me destruit. (That which nourishes me destroys me.)” (Unknown)
  • “One day I will be thin enough. Just the bones, no disfiguring flesh. Just the pure, clean 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.” (Unknown).

The House of Thin, the original Pro-Ana site, as a slightly different view. “Pro-Ana was the term used to describe sites that catered to eating disorders (usually anorexia). The first wave movement started back in 2001 as a means for other anorexics to connect with each other so as not to suffer in silence.” They take the stance that Pro-Ana has been vilified to the point of a “cult” that “makes people anorexic”, a ridiculous idea. One can not become anorexic any more then one can become schizophrenic. HOT also tries to support building a positive life style with realistic body image in order to reduce the risks of disordered eating. They are trying to treat the root of disordered eating, instead of forcing people to eat more - a sure way to relapse.

Many sites that I’ve visited in the past two days haven’t been so positive and supportive, however. In fact, they somewhat scare me. They post things such as “The Thin Commandments” (below), and tips on how to throw up and hide disordered eating behaviours from friends and loved ones.

1) If you aren't thin, you aren't attractive.
2) Being thin is more important than being healthy.
3) You must but clothes, cut your hair, take laxatives, anything to make yourself look thinner.
4) Thou shall not eat without feeling guilty.
5) Thou shall not eat fattening food without punishing afterwards.
6) Thou shall count calories and restrict intake accordingly.
7) What the scale says is the most important thing.
8) Losing weight is good, gaining weight is bad.
9) You can never be to thin.
10) Being thin and not eating are signs of true will power and success.

The meaning of Pro-Ana is either wonderfully positive, or a scary preoccupation with weight and looks. It would be easy to call the girls that post these websites sick, and ship them off to be force fed until they are within normal weight limits, but who’s to say if that’s right? Being vegan or vegetarian is a choice that many people make with limited condemnation, and it is a choice that restricts ones diet. If these girls have a dysfunctional relationship with food, and yet they are still functioning and healthy then are they really all that different from the rest of the “healthy” girls? In a world were gluttony is a (somewhat) valid life choice, and 63.1% of adults in the U.S. are either overweight or obese (Web MD), shouldn’t the other end of the bell curve be valid as well?