As regular readers of my blog will know, I often write about my history of eating disorders. I do so because I know that eating disorders are incredibly common, albeit very misunderstood, and I believe that it’s important to offer an insider’s viewpoint on their complex nature. I’m fortunate, in that it’s not something that I find particularly difficult to write about anymore. After years of therapy, I have come to a place where I have a relatively amicable relationship with my body and with food. This June marks the 5-year anniversary of my lowest point suffering from anorexia nervosa, and I’m glad to be able to do so, free from the tyrannies of the scale, counting calories, or of endless self-scrutiny in the mirror. I’m lucky to have a loving family and community of friends who understand that I still have lingering vulnerabilities when it comes to food and body image, and if I ever find myself having intrusive thoughts, I can speak to them openly about it.
One of the curious things that I’ve noticed, as I’ve emerged from the depths of my eating disorder, is that so many individuals and communities, who I once perceived as having normal attitudes about food—because they weren’t starving themselves outright, or purging after every meal—were entrenched in various degrees of disordered thoughts and behaviours about food. As I was trying to learn to develop a healthy and balanced diet and relationship to exercise, I realized that the diet and weight-loss industries were raking in more money than ever, that websites such as Tumblr, Pinterest, and YouTube were full of “thinspiration” and “fitspiration,” and that it seemed that almost every woman I knew was somehow dissatisfied with her body. This isn’t an unusual realization for those who are in recovery. Indeed, it’s one of the things that can make recovery so difficult, and I hear it often from friends and from the clients that I volunteer with. When we live in a society that encourages thinness at any cost, and that rewards obsessionally “clean” eating and marathon sessions in the gym, why would there be any incentive to recover?
As an English scholar, what’s struck me most about the disordered nature of many popular weight-loss communities, gurus, or companies that promote diet or health supplements are the eerie rhetorical similarities to some of the most hard-core pro-anorexia websites. Now, I’m certain that most people would disavow any similarities to pro-anorexia communities, since pro-ana argues that eating disorders aren’t illnesses but lifestyle choices. Most weight-loss communities are really, earnestly devoted to helping people and promoting health. I’m also fairly certain that most of those people haven’t been members of these types of communities either, and so would have little way of knowing that their slogans, their mantras, and some of their ways of creating a community of isolation are perfectly in line with the ways that underground, pro-eating disorder groups work.
But I DO know. From 2004-2007, I was a heavy user of pro-anorexia websites. I created collages of “thinspiration,” searched for ways to suppress my appetite and hide my eating disorder, and was a regular member on a number of forums. I logged on every single day, described how much or how little I had eaten, talked about my goal weights, and exchanged tips on how to hide my disordered behaviours from my family. To be truthful, it was only after I decided to leave the pro-ana communities that my eating disorder really spiraled out of control, behaviour-wise. However, the cult-like attitudes that the pro-ana movement had instilled in me made it that much more difficult to shake off the increasing power that my eating disorder had over me.
I want to explain some of those attitudes and techniques, and use them to demonstrate why I have serious concerns about how some weight-loss communities/companies/gurus work. I am not, of course, suggesting that these types of people are out to cause poor health in others, or that they are interested in merely profiteering off of the vulnerabilities of others; however, I want to show that there is a very fine line between solidarity in the achievement of health and the type of manipulation and isolation that creates unhealthy communities, and distances people from their families and loved ones and from a truly healthy relationship with food and body image.
“Thinspiration,” Clean Eating, and Ideal Bodies
One of the hallmarks of the pro-ana movement (one that has become surprisingly mainstream) is that of “thinspiration.” A portmanteau of “thin” and “inspiration,” thinspiration photographs run the gamut from models to ordinary girls, from photoshopped emaciation to real-life beach bodies. You can find it in every flavour you choose: abs, legs, butt, stomach, arms, collarbones, visible spines. Before and after shots. Whatever you want to inspire you to get the body beautiful: it’s out there.
Lately, especially online, I’ve noticed that the trend has moved from thin bodies to athletic bodies (although most are still thin, in any case). “Fitspiration” is well and alive on websites such as Tumblr, Pinterest, and Twitter, including the circulation of bullshit slogans that “strong is the new skinny,” and that “thin girls look good in clothes, but fit girls look good naked.” The cult of the body beautiful has simply appropriated the techniques of the underground pro-ana movement, packaged it into a more palatable and supposedly-healthy box, and served it anew, not only to millions of teenage girls, but to teenage boys and grown women and men.
Do not kid yourself: fitspiration is the same shit in a different pile. While I am most certainly all for fitness and exercise in moderation (including a focus on healthy eating and less processed foods over all), slogans and photographs of ripped abs and toned thighs are not necessarily representative of health. It’s important to recognize that a desire to be fit and look good can easily devolve into a denigration for individuals who are not (or do not appear to be) fit, a practice of shaming others for food choices that are not exclusively “clean,” a fear of non-clean foods, and an obsession with reps of weights completed and miles run. What scares me most about this aspect of our current focus on health and wellness is that like the pro-ana community, many people begin to believe they’re not harming themselves, and that what they’re doing can’t possibly be disordered. Believe me: it can when it’s taken too far. I’ve been there too.
Motivational Quotations and Success-Speak
During my time in the pro-ana community, I learned the value of “success-speak.” Inspirational quotations were plentiful, whether featured in forum members’ signatures, photoshopped onto images of thin models, or simply listed in abundance on websites as a way to motivate us in our quest to be beautiful, perfect, and weightless. While the mantras of “a moment on the lips, forever on the hips” were popular, so too, were ones from Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robbins, and any other speaker, “guru,” or public figure you could imagine. Even the words of spiritual figures and civil rights activists were not off-limits in being appropriated for our cause.
The proliferation of mantras in excess, especially those which focus on individual success as simply a means of trying hard enough, never giving up, and not wanting to give in to “failure,” were certainly excellent ways of putting a positive spin on a means of self-destruction. This is also the same phenomenon that I have observed at work in Multi-Level Marketing companies, many of which are currently cornering the health/diet/fitness market. The more positivity that can be used, the less the unhealthy aspects of the community is revealed, and the more people want to engage in it so as not to let the community down. Skeptics and naysayers need not apply, and are quickly ousted from the community in order to preserve it.
“Don’t Let The Haters Get You Down”
Skeptics and naysayers in the pro-ana community were generally those on the outside: concerned friends, families, and physicians. They were the people who told us that starvation and purging were dangerous habits, who expressed concern when we fainted or were lightheaded, who reminded us that the price of these behaviours was serious illness, if not death. I can’t tell you how many times I not only shrugged off that concern, but began to perceive any outside criticism as a serious threat to the integrity of my illness. Fellow pro-ana community members reminded me that I can’t let “the haters get me down,” that outsiders didn’t understand me, that everyone else would just be jealous of me when I lost weight, and that efforts to intervene were just ways of them sabotaging my weight-loss out of that place of jealousy.
I hear that a lot from people who are involved in weight-loss communities. And while I do not deny that the threat of sabotage is real in many cases, I don’t think that the people who suggest that people are merely out to “ruin their success” is accurate; in any case, it’s certainly not nuanced. Whenever a member of a community (a family member, a friend, a co-worker) begins to undertake a drastic change, whether it be in changing eating habits, exercise habits, or making the decision to stop drinking, smoking, or using drugs, the routines and identities of the other community members are challenged. When you’re used to eating take-out and watching television with your partner, and they all of a sudden start eating differently and being more active, not only is your relationship altered, but you may start to feel pressure to also change your habits (whether you’re ready or not). Given the scrutiny that our society already places on people who are overweight, obese, less active, or who eat “junk” food, it’s reasonable to fear that the person who is changing may start to harbour the same types of attitudes and beliefs against their loved one. Nobody wants to be left behind, and certainly, nobody wants to start to be shamed or looked down upon by the person they once shared a certain activity, behaviour, or food with.
At its best, the suggestion that we can’t “let the haters get us down” is a caution against the precarious nature of changing, and the impact it may have (or the residual issues it may bring out) in our communities. At its worst, it is a tactic that isolates individuals and risks severing their ties with anyone who is not involved in a similar pursuit, especially when the potential profit involved (weight loss, money, etc) is perceived as being worth more than love or friendship. Need I remind anyone that the “with us or against us” tactic is exactly the same one that George W. Bush used after 9/11, in order to justify and secure support for the “War On Terror”? This isn’t a benign statement in any community. There is, after all, a big difference between becoming assertive and confident to react less strongly to others’ criticisms and starting to view outsiders as weak or malicious, to treat them with paranoia or suspicion.
As I’ve stated before, I do not want to suggest that all weight-loss communities are unhealthy, that all weight-loss/fitness gurus are disordered (although Jillian Michaels once admitted to pouring salt or candle wax on half her food at restaurants so she wouldn’t get tempted…), or that Multi-Level Marketing health/diet companies are all bogus. It’s a lot more nuanced than that, and that’s why I’ve tried to point out some of the areas where the discourses overlap. It’s important to become informed, and be careful of the initial rose-goggle phase of any sudden jump into a community. It’s okay to disagree with certain tactics and agree with others, so long as your disagreement can be articulated, and you’re not afraid of speaking up about it. No weight-loss program, form of diet and exercise, or community is perfect. Certain things may trigger some and motivate others; other things might convince someone to try something and follow it reasonably and yet turn others into devoted radicals.
Food, health, our bodies: they’re sensitive issues. They can play on our vulnerabilities, bring out our strengths. I constantly remind my clients that we do live a world where food is not a black and white issue, and we all need to know where our comfort levels lie.
I have been out of the pro-anorexia community since December 2006. I found healthier online support. Some of my best friends are from recovery sites and outpatient treatment. I am so incredibly grateful for their love and support.
All I can say, as a piece of final advice, is to just be careful out there; take care of yourselves. Get informed. Learn your triggers and your boundaries. Keep open communication. I certainly wish I had.