Eating Disorders, Pro-Ana, Pro-Mia and body shaming.
Today I’m taking a slight detour from feminism. While this article is based on feminist ideas, it actually focuses more on the dynamics of body shaming within eating disorders.
I would also like to clarify that personally, I do not agree with pro-ana/pro-mia sites, but I do believe that they should be as safe a space as possible for those who use them.
As an apology for this distressing topic, I’ve left you with a little something that always, without fail, makes me squeal in delight.
Part 3: Body Shaming with Ana and Mia.
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about body shaming. When we were little, we were told it wasn’t okay to call someone ‘fat’, or ‘ugly’, and a few other words were added to this list but, as we got older, we realised there was much more that society deems to be ‘wrong’ with peoples’ bodies. There were many more ways to shame someone for their appearance and there’s a particular kind of body shaming that’s not talked about as often. I’m talking about skinny shaming.
I did some ‘research’. And I don’t mean I started Googling psychological studies that linked eating disorders with media influence, I mean I went on Instagram and I searched #thin. Instagram came up with a delightful little warning, making sure I knew what I was getting myself into (yes, they really do have this), and asking if I needed information or advice about eating disorders. I rejected this notion and continued on with my search. I knew exactly what I was in for: I was entering the world of thinspiration, fitspiration, pro-ana and pro-mia.
Thinspiration and fitspiration (or thinspo and fitspo) essentially do what they say on the tin – they are images of thin, slim, toned people (generally women) with messages encouraging people to strive for the figure pictured. Pro-ana and pro-mia are respectively pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia images and messages (there are, in fact, entire websites dedicated to such) often depicting people with tiny frames – again as a form of ‘inspiration’.
Obviously none of these concepts are particularly healthy (even fitspo is questionable). They are triggering and people with eating disorders, rather than shying away from them, often seek them out to trigger or ‘inspire’ themselves. While most people cannot, no matter how hard they try, see these pages as anything other than dark, sad, negative spaces on the internet, there is another side to the story.
These pages, provide support and a community for those suffering with eating disorders. It is their space. It’s not necessarily a healthy space for them, I’ll grant you that, but it is a place where they don’t have to hide their daily struggles: the anonymity of the internet provides them with a shield between how they appear to other people and the thoughts they actually live with on a day-to-day basis. It’s a space where they don’t have to hide who they are, it’s a space where they feel safe talking about such sensitive issues. The images, words, thoughts, feelings they share are somewhat an online diary.
It is impossible to deny that, while scrolling through these haunting images of slender girls shaming their own bodies and declaring their struggles with eating disorders, there was an overwhelming sense of support. There was a web of friendship and mutual understanding between the anonymous accounts of sufferers, and encouraging messages bearing positive messages were the norm, such as: ‘You’re beautiful, I wish you could see it’.
There are, of course, those who abuse the system; those who ask for ‘tips’; those who will actively encourage people to take serious risks with their health. This is obviously not okay. But while I was flicking through this #thin photo stream, there were actually surprisingly (I felt) few posts of this nature – having an eating disorder is not something to be encouraged and sufferers recognise this more than anyone. I did however notice another problem, a very real problem; and the problem I saw came from the voices that make up 99% of the population without an eating disorder.
By this point you’re probably convinced I’m crazy, right? But just hear me out. People (okay, kind/friendly/normal/whatever people) would never dream of going on Instagram searching #fat and, upon seeing a photo of someone who was medically obese saying how they hate their figure, consider telling them to ‘lose some weight’ or ‘go for a run.’ Yet the same people who would comment ‘You look great! *insert compliment here*’ on a #fat photo are almost just as likely to enter a pro-ana space and declare ‘Why would you do that to yourself?’ and this is where the problem lies.
In secondary school I was witness to slim girls being told to ‘Go eat a burger,’ or ‘Put on some weight,’ which is bad enough in itself but what really hit home to me was when people would actually ask: ‘Are you anorexic?’ And yes, I really have witnessed someone say that to another human. In that one sentence they implied both:
- You look ill. Like, REALLY ill. Fragile kind of ill. You should probably put on some weight.
- How’s your mental health doing, by the way? Clearly you’re in the grasp of a horrific mental health condition which claims more lives than any other mental health disorder.
Perhaps more surprisingly, these comments were not just the words of naive teens, adults would also make similar remarks without thinking twice. Teachers would call kids skinny or scrawny. At church I overheard people making comments about the younger people such as ‘If they turns to the side, they’ll disappear.’ Unsurprisingly, the victims of such comments felt incredibly uncomfortable with this: it makes someone just as indignant if you tell them they look ‘so thin,’ as it does if you tell them they look ‘pudgy’ .
So where am I going with this? On the first of May 2014 I was witness to a body shaming incident that made my blood boil. A twelve year old girl on Instagram decided to comment on a #thin photo – posted by an individual clearly suffering from an eating disorder – telling them that they looked ‘disgusting’ and asked why they would do it to themselves. I messaged her (gently, she was only 12) explaining that she was actually shaming the other individual for their choices and it was as bad as giving an overweight person exercise tips, telling them they were ugly and asking them how they could live with themselves. The result? She deleted her comment and apologised straight away. It was quite simple – she hadn’t thought of it that way before. At no point in her life had someone told her, ‘Look, you know how it’s not okay to call people ugly for being overweight? It’s also not okay to call someone ugly if they look underweight either. Appearance is not what creates a person and it’s unfair to judge someone on it, regardless of how they came to be that way.’ (Of course, there isn’t just over and underweight these days, is there? There’s a whole body shaming checklist that needs to be righted, which can mostly be blamed on the media, but that’s a story for another time.)
Now, question time, what do you think is more triggering to a person with an eating disorder: photos of slim girls they could probably find flicking through a magazine, or someone questioning their life choices and making them feel ashamed for a disorder they cannot help? Bingo.
I suppose I’ve rambled on for long enough now to sum up. Pro-ana and pro-mia are sad places on the internet, yes, but they are a type of community and they do offer many people support. There may be those who abuse it but, on the whole, it is simply people empathising with each other over their struggles. No matter how hard it is to comprehend, these unusual corners of the internet often act as safe spaces for those under Ana and Mia’s influence; and they can lose that sense of security when people without the same understanding infiltrate their space and judge them upon it. Body shaming never helped anyone, not in the least Ana and Mia.