Starving to be perfect?

One of my resolutions this year was to lose some weight and get healthy. Not really a serious resolution, and one that thousands upon thousands of us make every year.

Reading  Penny Laurie’s article today really made me sit up and take notice. It also left me feeling quite anxious and perturbed. This article made me aware of the existence of something I knew nothing about, the existence of a whole range of pro-ana websites, forums, and social networking sites.

For those like me, who may have little knowledge of this area, pro-ana refers to the promotion of the eating disorder anorexia nervosa as a ‘lifestyle choice’. It is often referred to simply as “ana” and is sometimes affectionately personified by anorexics as a girl named Ana.

A quick Google search on pro-ana brings up 1,790,000 hits.

Pro-ana organisations have in reality two stances with one side claiming that they exist mainly as a non-judgmental support environment for anorexics, and accept that it is a mental illness. The other pro-ana organisations deny anorexia nervosa is a mental illness and go with the  “lifestyle choice” route. This latter belief presents a far more worrying picture with the emergence of pro-eating disorder web sites, often run by young girls with eating disorders themselves.

One of these sites was the source of a Time Magazine article back in June 2005 “Starvation on the Web,” with the focus of the article being the pro-anorexia Web site, which was being run by a 19-year-old college student with anorexia.

It is these pro-eating disorder sites that simply appear to act as gathering grounds for people who have eating disorders like anorexia but who accept it as a lifestyle choice.

Starving for Perfection is a pro-ana blog whose write is clearly anorexic and who describes her blog as being used “to support one another on our journey to being thin” – She writes, “I’ve been doing really well lately with my eating disorder. I haven’t been eating much of anything. I definitely have been continuing to lose weight like crazy and people are starting to notice and worry. I love it. My arms feel tiny (which never happens)!” Comments made by some followers of her blogs tell her how great she looks, bearing in mind she is painfully thin, to which her replies are often that her stomach is huge and her thighs are so big that they overlap. Does this really signify a lifestyle choice?

This blog, alonside numerous other blogs and forums, list do and don’ts and quote pro-ana commandments:

If you aren’t thin, you aren’t attractive.
Being thin is more important than being healthy.
You must buy clothes, cut your hair, take laxatives, starve yourself, and do anything to make yourself look thinner.
Thou shall not eat without feeling guilty.
Thou shall not eat fattening food without punishing oneself afterwards.
Thou shall count calories and restrict intake accordingly.
What the scale says is the most important thing.
Losing weight is good/ gaining weight is bad.
You can never be too thin.
Being thin and not eating are signs of true will power and success.
If you are thin, you will be loved and accepted
Being thin is more important than being healthy
You must buy clothes, cut your hair, take laxatives, starve yourself, do anything to make yourself look thinner
Thou shall not eat without feeling guilty
Thou shall not eat fattening foods without punishing oneself afterwards
Thou shall count calories and restrict intake accordingly
What the scale says is the most important thing
Losing weight is good/ Gaining weight is bad
You can never be too thin
Being thin and not eating are true signs of willpower and success

Many pro-ana sites offer tips on how to be anorexic and bulimic, photos of thin people for “thinspiration,” highlight foods to eat that have few calories, how to “survive” eating in a restaurant, and message boards and chat rooms for support. Ana’s Thinspiration is just one of these sites and boasts pictures and quotes such as:

  • Thin has a taste all its own
  • I do eat: only what is needed for.  I can’t help it that we live in a piggish society where gluttony is the norm, and everyone else is constantly stuffing themselves.
  • Ask me to show you perfect and I will show you a thin person.
    Starving is an example of excellent will power
  • Bones are clear and pure. Fat is dirty and hangs on your bones like a parasite.
  • An imperfect body reflects and imperfect person
  • Anyone can have inner beauty. But very few can earn real beauty, inside as well as out.
  • Hunger hurts, but starving works!
  • Starving is not pain, it’s the cure.

It seems that these young women see their primary goal is to persuade others that they are perfectly fine, and that they have the right to lead their lives however they see fit.

The pressure to be thin and “perfect” in society today brings dangerous consequences for our children and young people.  On a personal level, being a follower/believer of pro-ana is a personal choice. But in the technological world in which we live, where the majority of children and young people have access to this technology and where this ideology is being openly shared and publicised the dangers are obvious.

Societal pressure to be thin – jumps out from magazines, tv programmes and even government policy. With the focus on the obesity crisis, the need for children not to be overweight and the requirement that we all lead healthy lifestyles, those children that are not perceived as easily fitting into the ‘healthy’ category face huge pressures from all directions. For such children, problems with body image can easily be heightened and the need to be accepted and to fit in could easily lead them to these ‘dangerous’ pro-ana sites.

We need to ensure that our children and young people are fully educated about the dangers of anorexia and other eating disorders. Yes we need a focus on healthy eating and healthy living, but also with an understanding of the diversity of shape and size.