Tuesday, February 17, 2009

In Praise of Anorexia

This column scared me a little bit when I did the original research for it four years ago. I did a quick search before re-running it here, and see no reason to believe that it is any less true today than it was back then. If anything, the pro-ana sites have gotten more subtle and clever in their non-disclaimer disclaimers.
(News-Herald, January 2005) I should tell you up front that this week’s column is absolutely straight, that I am making up nothing, exaggerating nothing, inventing nothing. What I’m writing about is not news, but it was news to me (and so may be news to you) until one of my students showed me the extraordinarily scary world of pro-ana.
You’ve heard about anorexia and its cousin bulimia, eating disorders in which people (mostly women) slowly starve themselves in an attempt to erase what they see as gross, fleshy excess.
There are numerous theories about the cause of the disease—cultural worship of size 0 models, an irrational compulsion to be perfect, physiological chemistry gone haywire. Karen Carpenter is perhaps the most famous fatality, but I’ve known students who struggled with it all the way into their adult lives.
This is a behavior with deep roots. Only the ignorant would suggest, “Well, they should just eat and get healthy.” Sure. And if every single one of your senses says that you’re on fire, you stand still because someone else says you’re not.
Treatment is hard. The Harvard Eating Disorder Center says that of those treated, 50% recover, 30% make partial recovery, and 20% have no improvement at all.
Into this comes the pro-ana movement. Pro-ana’s and pro-mia’s (that’s for bulimia) reject the notion that anorexia is a disorder and that anyone needs to be treated. They assert that it is a lifestyle choice; one site calls is a spiritual path and discipline. Treatment is just society’s attempt to control and dominate the ana’s.
This is another movement that the internet has helped connect and power. A google search on “pro ana” turned up 32,200 hits. Many of those are “anti’s”—people who are speaking out against the pro-ana movement. And many sites disappear quickly, because web hosting services often remove them upon discovery. But the ones that are pro and still there, well—it’s stunning.
Here are some real quotes (often called “thinspiration”) from real sites.
“Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.”
“Food hinders your progress.”
“One day I will be thin enough. Just the bones, no disfiguring flesh. Just the pure clear 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.”
“Like a plant, surely the body can be trained to exist on nothing, to take its nourishment from the air.”
They salute and celebrate the strength of will, the enormous control that it takes to keep their food intake to a minimum. “We are the epitome of strength among a population of complacent, over-weight human beings.”
“For me, food’s only interest lies in how little I need, how strong I am, how well I can resist—each time achieving another small victory of the will.”
There are many message boards where ana’s share tricks, words of encouragement. They post thinspirational pictures, photos of fashion models like the barely-there Kate Moss.
One talks about how light and free she feels. Colors are brighter. Her head feels lighter; lights flash in front of her eyes. She has eaten nothing for three days. Other writers applaud her example. Another boasts that she hasn’t had her period in three months, proof that she is approaching her goal.
They share tips. Lists of things to do to avoid thoughts of food are on every site (and I saw sites in at least six different languages). There is advice on how to keep calories under 200 per day. One girl recommends canned chicken broth and another responds that you should buy the boullion cubes, which have 5 calories instead of 20.
There’s more practical coping advice. “Lie in fetal position and curl up. It helps your stomach stop hurting.”
There’s lots of advice for hiding anorexia, not because of shame, but because the rest of the world won’t understand, will try to control you, will try to break your will. There’s a continuing theme of becoming a shelled-up person, open only other ana’s. One site sells three-strand red bracelets as a sign of solidarity with other ana’s.
It’s tempting to take the hard line. I’m sure there are people that say that
if these loons want to destroy themselves, the gene pool is better off without them. I’m sure that none of those people are the parents of an ana.
I can’t imagine how scary it would be to discover your daughter suffering from this. The only thing worse would be discovering people cheering her on.


Danny Lucas said...

Hello Peter,

I read that post with angst, for I know many a delightful and beautiful young woman starving to death with this plague.

You have outlined it well.

I want to add another plague, that has been equally hard for me to understand, yet falls in this subset of youth and behavior that bewilders.

A mom told me her daughter is a "cutter" and asked what she should do. I have no experience with this, and took the issue up first with my teen daughter.

I asked: "Why would a girl take a razorblade and cut herself on purpose?

My daughter gave me a look that said 'you're the adult and you can't see the obvious?'. But she was too kind to say it aloud.

She replied:
"Dad, the girls who do that are in pain all over.
When you cut yourself, ALL the pain goes to one spot and you can deal with that much".

This gave me a perception and when I later spoke to the mom, the new issue became "all the pain", not the cuts to localize them.

There were myriad issues underneath that were missed by adults, for we grew up in a wholly different culture.

Learning the language of an ant allows you to communicate with ants.
Learning the language of teen culture does the same thing in communicating what WE know as adults, and linking it to the world of today's young women.

I enjoy your posts.

Best regards,
Danny Lucas

Blogking said...

My friend died of anorexia 3 months ago. She was healthy as a horse, had an amazing life, up until about a year and a half ago when she started feeling bad about her body and weight....she died at 88 pounds and I miss her every single day. I pray that this never happens to you or your loved ones. Celebrate life as much as possible!

From my Flickr