Disclaimer: This posts deals with eating disorders, eating disorder behaviour and Pro-Ana/Pro-Mia sites. I understand that some people may find a comfort in these sites, but this is my personal experience, what research I have completed in my masters and my perspective of what I observed and consumed on these sites.
I am alone in front of my brother’s computer. I open up the internet and type in a familiar phase into the search engine, as I watch hundreds of results flash up in front of my eyes. I click on a link, permanently purple in colour, and it takes me to a blog. Images ensnare me. Words, commandments, rules reel me in with grip hook reminders of what I have become consumed with. I scroll endlessly, pausing over certain photos, tracing the outline of the subject with my cursor. I can feel a high building in my system. It’s a strange sensation. One that both fills me with light and fills me with darkness. I am being simultaneously pulled down and lifted up. Hope yet despair. I find some text on the page with comforting words and instructions, a guiding star, and I feel … safe.
After a time, I exit this page as the high is waining and I need something else. I open YouTube and look up a favourite video. It’s a picture series video. A lovely, very pretty song accompanies it. I click another and another and another and another until my search history has an evidence trail of what I am. Eventually I leave and return to more blogs where I meet supporters who unwittingly entice me with their efforts; breeding a competitiveness I have only seen in sport. They are like me so they don’t know. I read the details of their day in the format of food and exercise. I learn their ways as they learn from mine. We goad each other to do better. To submit entirely. And soon, once I am absolutely sick and heavy with my consumption, I retire for a few hours until I return that night to do it all over again.
I was involved in the Pro-Ana Nation.
While there is not evidence in the number of visitors to these sites, or frequent users, there are likely hundreds or thousands of people that visited Pro-Ana sites. It’s a formidable habit. A dangerous one.
So, what is Pro-Ana?
Pro-Ana is short for Pro-Anorexia. It is the promotion of behaviours that align with anorexia nervosa and restrictive eating patterns. Its counterpart is Pro-Mia, or Pro-Bulimia. Its main method of dissemination is online through websites and social media channels. When I followed Pro-Ana, I used the websites.
Pro-Ana/Pro-Mia is a community, which spreads the message of maintaining your eating disorder. It’s portrayed as though its a religion. Most sites, if not all, have their staple posts: the thin commandments, the Ana Creed. Of course, it’s a total parody of Christianity and Catholicism – this irony was not lost on me, being a born and raised Catholic myself. It’s like a religion and you become its follower.
Pro-Ana is seen in written blog posts, photo sets, photo edits… There are tips and tricks on how to hide your eating disorder from your family, how to lose weight, dangerous crash diets, tricking your GP or the staff in the inpatient clinic… There’s diagrams, thinspiration videos, safe foods – which, I might add, become less and less safe the further you delve. Pro-Ana is vast and detailed, leaving no gaps for you to escape from the grasps of your eating disorder. From Ana. From Mia.
My journey with Pro-Ana began when I was 15. I was already developing orthorexia, and in a very vulnerable place. I was in English class and we were going over our argumentative/persuasive essays. I was doing something on meat consumption or the fashion industry’s creepy sexualisation of child and adolescent models. You know, something light-hearted. Reading over my endless pages of notes, trying to construct some kind of plan, I caught sight of my classmate’s pages printed from the internet. It was a lot of articles and some screen grabs of something called Pro-Ana. She was discussing it with the rest of the table and I asked, innocently enough, if I could look at what she was doing. I was genuinely curious.
My eyes were glued to the page immediately. It was probably in that moment that the personification of anorexia manifested and began to hang around me. I just didn’t realise it. I handed the pages back to my classmate, making a mental note to research what this Pro-Ana thing was. And that’s where it started.
I got home, and got onto my brother’s computer, as he played football or golf that night. Within minutes, I was in deep. Admittedly, I was horrified by what I was seeing. I couldn’t believe that people ran sites like this and that people actually followed it. But, I wasn’t closing the page. I couldn’t close the page. I was horrified, but I was intrigued. This was a place that could promise me it all. The truth on how to really get to where I wanted to in life. Most of these people had lives similar to mine. They had mental health difficulties. Anxiety. Depression.
They were lonely and lost and trying to figure out why they felt like failures. And so was I.
So, I stayed. And, Pro-Ana had me.
Pro-Ana became a part of my daily routine during my experience with orthorexia and anorexia. You’re already living, according to a very regimented and highly controlled routine, so the addition to Pro-Ana became an essential part to my experience with anorexia nervosa. I would spent days trawling through blogs. At times, I would be so un-energetic that I would mindlessly watch videos called Thinspiration videos. This is essentially videos full of extremely slim girls and ‘inspirational quotes’ such as that infamous Kate Moss quote. I wasn’t even taking in the images when I felt this weak, but the fact I knew they were there was good enough for me.
It was a comfort blanket.
The only way I could appropriately describe the grip Pro-Ana had on me was like having an addiction, which is perhaps insensitive to those who have drug addictions. But, it gave me a real high. It gave me a short burst of excitement and belonging. So, when I was hitting real lows of depression, exhaustion, and self-hatred, I would go on the Pro-Ana sites and find solace, a justification for what I was doing. It was like the anorexia was trying keep me on track, keep me trapped, within the suffocating walls of an eating disorder. One trip to these sites would remind what I could achieve if I just maintained my eating disorder.
Pro-Ana portrays these slim girls as very successful in their social circles; so gorgeous that boys fall at their feet and see them as these ethereal creatures. This is absolute gold for young, impressionable adolescent girls; particularly those with such low self-worth and low self-esteem like me. I grew up hating the way I looked and the way I acted. I didn’t understand myself. I didn’t know my identity. I was cannon fodder to these sites. My eating disorder knew it could have me hook, line and sinker with the details of a successful and happy life if I just kept starving myself.
But here was the problem.
There were lots of us in these Pro-Ana communities, whether they were active and contributing members, or silent consumers like me. And, we were all feeding and being fed the idea that being the epitome of what an eating disorder wants is exactly what we should strive for. So, often there were detailed accounts, and sometimes nonsensical, starved accounts, of our failures in restricting and purging. Anytime we binged we felt like we failed and the purge that followed made us feel dirty. We were being promised that the eating disorder was the key to our happiness but we were all so deeply unhappy and deeply unwell. Even when we were ‘doing well’ according to Pro-Ana and our eating disorders, we were failures to ourselves as whatever we did was not good enough. No matter whether we could see bones, or we had to five layers to keep warm, or we weighed a certain amount, ate a certain number of calories, fasted for a certain number of days, we still felt like failures. These Pro-Ana sites trapped us in this cycle of feeling like a failure with the small, fleeting yet instant hit of hope that we could maybe be what Pro-Ana promised. As long as we stayed on the sites, used them, and continued to follow the dangerous diets, and restricted and purged.
The additional danger that came with the community was the support we gave each other was quite superficial and actually spurred on subconscious competitive behaviours. It was almost a ‘best in show’ and Ana and Mia were the judges. Not only were you learning tips and tricks in how to maintain your eating disorder, but you were also trying to outdo each other. Be the best at your eating disorder. You are special and that’s why Ana chose you so prove you are the best. Prove it!
You are in competition with each other and you can record your attempts via these posts. How long you fasted for. How many calories you didn’t eat. How you can purge so easily now. And on the other side, you are reading these posts, soaking in the words, thinking I need to do better. I need to prove to Ana that I am worthy. If you see someone who is eating 400 calories a day, and you are eating 500, you instantly feel like a failure. You must do better. Must try harder. This leads to an increase in your disordered eating. I would eat less because I felt I had to do just as well, if not better, than others. I would restrict further in my eating disorder because I was seeing evidence plain as day that I was not good enough. Not only was my eating disorder telling me I wasn’t good enough, and I had to starve myself more, but I was reading the words of the others ‘successes.’
And there I was, crying because I couldn’t make myself sick like they could, and instead was cutting up the back of my throat with whatever utensil I was using and hurting my stomach and chest with the gagging and coughing with no result.
I was heavily addicted to the these sites, and it was very hard to withdraw from them. It was very obviously important to my recovery that I did, but I would miss the feeling it gave me. The hit of adrenaline. The strangely warm and longing feeling that I was making myself better and it would all be worth it. I could be like these girls on the Pro-Ana sites. I could be happy. I could have the life I wanted. I could have everything Pro-Ana promised. As long as I did what she told me to do.
And the more I consumed on the internet, the less I consumed in real life.
Nowadays, these sites are a lot more heavily policed. But social media is ever evolving and there are ways in which Pro-Ana can operate her sick little games to warp people within the eating disorder community. Code words, private accounts, censors; all masquerading in a much cleverer and sneakier way than when they were quite brazen on these old blogging sites. But, then again, that’s the nature of an eating disorder.
I have never attempted to seek out these sites again. Because I know how powerful they are. I remember how they sucked me in. I remember how they trapped me.
I’ve found my way to the surface again and I don’t want to go back. Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia are powerhouses, and not the good kind. They are evil, destructive things that steal your identity and make you feel like you are being supported, when you are not. You are only being plunged into their world; never to be your own person again. You are theirs.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or concerned about someone who is, then please contact your GP, or visit Beat for helplines and online support forums.
I understand some of you might find this language or content inflammatory and untrue. We all have different experiences. These are mine and, as you can tell, I am not a fan of Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia sites. However, if you have any other opinions, or a different experience with these sites, leave a comment below. I always love learning about other peoples’ experiences and reading your perspectives.