The closest analogy to this in-patient experience is if you imagine you are scuba diving, and then without warning, somehow, the oxygen tank floats away. You’re so far underwater that you have no way of knowing which way is up. Panic sets in. But suddenly you're forced to trust a stranger, a professional. Although everyone told us the professionals were leading us towards the sun, they were not the voices that screamed in our heads at night that were adamant we wouldn’t survive.
©Andrey Burmakin / Adobe Stock
It was difficult for me to write this article about pro-ana sites. It meant having to go back there. Back to the pro-ana sites. Back into the darkly supportive online pro-ana sites where I harvested solace and motivation.
There are cliques here: anorexia, bulimia, EDNOS, anorexics starting at a higher BMI. There is a home for everyone on pro-ana sites. I click into the anorexia subsection and click on a topic with a lot of replies. It’s titled “Your dream BMI.”
There’s a lot of humor here, the user’s joke about finally getting down to zero, and GIFs are lurching all down the page. Your ideal BMI is known as UGW here, or ultimate goal weight. It’s what we’re all after. Or were, some of us were able to get out, some of us faded out.
“Ana" stands for the illness anorexia nervosa and "pro" connotes an obsessive and absolute devotion to it.”
Another topic on the pro-ana sites was titled ‘my upper arms are disgusting,’ which featured an uploaded image of a malnourished woman picking at her triceps in the mirror. She gets the support she craves. These people understand what she’s going through; they understand the self-hatred and fear and shame that crashes over her. They discuss their own flaws, their “chubby stomach,” “broad, flabby shoulders,” their “tiny thigh gaps.” She is comforted by them as they tell her she looks so beautifully thin. I can feel the relief she must feel as she is validated, the loosening of her chest just for a moment.
It must be really difficult for someone without an eating disorder to understand the allure of a Pro-Ana site. I was never a member of any pro-ana sites, but you didn’t have to be to view all of the content. I was also very sporadic in using this site, but when I would arrive back, it felt like someone was giving me the needle so I could inject my addiction. Sweet and pure.
These pro-ana sites also condemn therapists and dieticians, as well as family members, who are ‘meddling’ in something that’s none of their business. These thoughts were already in my head, these twisted concepts that snarled at the idea of needing to ‘get help.’ Pro-Ana sites reaffirmed these beliefs and helped me find workarounds. The site members regularly discuss tactics on how to engage in eating disorder behaviors, whatever they were, without getting caught.
Now, for me anyways, pro-ana sites were not the source of my illness, but every time I committed to ridding myself of this crushing, so-called lifestyle, this was always a last-ditch attempt to hold onto it. I’d be a week into the tears and blinding fear of recovery when I’d find myself on my laptop, soaking up the security of my eating disorder. All at once I felt relief and safety and comfort. And the discipline to retreat into starvation.
When I was in-patient, they didn’t take our phones away. I could see other patients scrolling through the forums. I didn’t judge; just like me, their coping mechanism was ripped from them.
The closest analogy to this in-patient experience is if you imagine you are scuba diving, and then without warning, somehow, the oxygen tank floats away. You’re so far underwater that you have no way of knowing which way is up. Panic sets in. But suddenly you’re forced to trust a stranger, a professional. Although everyone told us the professionals were leading us towards the sun, they were not the voices that screamed in our heads at night that were adamant we wouldn’t survive.
It felt like an exorcism.
“Pro-ana sites that glorify anorexia as a lifestyle choice play directly to the psychology of its victims”
Academy for Eating Disorders
It is not easy to explain why I felt fat
People with eating disorders find it difficult to help their loved ones understand what they’re experiencing. Research has found that anorexic sufferers have unusually high scores of alexithymia, a personality construct centered around a person’s inability to identify and describe their emotions.
It’s not easy to explain you feel fat to someone, that you’re having a panic attack because your thighs are too big. How can a rational person understand the biting fear? How can your family and friends relate to this? They can’t, so we turn to those who do understand on pro-ana sites.
“Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and sufferers are left to fend for themselves”
Thomas R. Insel, MD
Why I visited pro-ana sites
My eating disorder was always ten times louder after an hour on one of these pro-ana sites. When life was too stressful, I’d use this distraction. My life became more straightforward for a while as not eating became the priority.
Looking back I don’t understand why I was given free rein to hurt myself the way I did. I think there might be more stigma than many people, even myself, realize with eating disorders.
Read more: What are the origins of anorexia?
The race to the bottom of the scales had nothing to do with vanity. I saw little in my life worth pursuing rather than my goal to be thin. And when I found myself in secret competition with others whose bodies were shutting down from malnutrition, there was no moderator.
On these pro-ana sites, education, careers, having a family, socializing, it can all wait. The eating disorder comes first. It must be appeased, but it is insatiable. It claws sink deeper and deeper, as the mind tracks neural pathways so that living with an eating disorder becomes instinctive.
Starving yourself becomes instinctive. And all these other users on pro-ana sites appear to be managing. Their BMIs lower and their prideful stories of how they ate only apple skins that day made me want to do worse. The diets here are not diets; they’re torture mechanisms for people who don’t think they deserve anything in life.