Even in the darkest periods of my journey through anorexia, I was lucky that pro-anorexia (or “pro-ana”) content never played a significant role in my illness. Pro-ana takes many forms - ranging from images of emaciated bodies to tips about how to lose weight rapidly irrespective of the risks that might be involved. Key to the danger posed by pro-ana is that way in which certain ideals relating to weight and shape are actively promoted, as well as the dangerous methods that can be used to get there. Pro-ana isn’t intended to sit in a vacuum - it’s meant to be used.
Impossibly thin bodies (often because they have been photoshopped to the point that they break the possibilities of human anatomy) are something we’re told to compare our own bodies with. Extreme and dangerous patterns of eating, exercise and even using drugs are all upheld as reasonable means by which we can attain such body shapes for ourselves. The motivation instilled by such images can be powerful. Despite being clinically emaciated myself, seeing images of very thin people when I was unwell greatly exacerbated my drive towards thinness, often triggering or worsening my symptoms as I fell further into the depths of anorexia.
What fuelled this drive was shame. Comparing myself to pictures of slim and beautiful people gave rise to a wave of guilt and disgust that my body was somehow not as skinny, fat-less or “perfect” as it should be. It was a blisteringly visceral feeling - a sense of utter loathing for my physical form which quickly translated into a desire to completely reject my body. My revulsion was so strong that I felt like tearing through my own skin, or simply disappearing.
Whilst this reaction was extreme, I don’t think it’s a million miles away from how many of us feel when presented with images of idealised body types in our day-to-day lives. Whilst the mainstream media and social media accounts don’t explicitly use pictures of unhealthy bodies in order to strengthen eating disorder symptoms, that doesn’t mean that common depictions of the human from are without consequence. For instance, choosing a body for a marketing campaign means not choosing another, reinforcing ideas about how we ought to look that can evoke discomfort when we fail to meet the prescribed standard.
I only have to open Instagram to see endless images of the perfect body. Countless “fitspiration” videos fill my feed, promising that “mastering the perfect pull-up” will help me improve my appearance - and by extension my ‘likability’ as a human being. Images of six-pack-clad models lounging in paradise exude the message that fitness - as judged on visual appearance - is intimately tied to the desirable things in life. Body-optimisation is lauded as our route to success, happiness and glamorous popularity; via the moral virtues of self-control and determination.
This kind of content promotes a way of life which, for most of us, requires strict adherence to uncompromising exercise and dietary regimes. Sometimes these are directly advocated in order to sell the latest superfood shakes or fitness app subscriptions. Often though, the seemingly effortless perfection portrayed in fitness- and lifestyle-related content masks the sheer amount of work involved in cultivating the ideal body and curating a flawless photo. The unending hours in the gym go unseen, along with the rigid diets that prohibit the freedom to eat a biscuit when you fancy. The average person - who doesn’t have four hours a day in which to hit the gym and read endless food labels - is soon left feeling frustrated with their own lack of progress.
Pro-ana therefore takes place against a cultural obsession with image, where the body is a project whose success or otherwise reflects on more than health or attractiveness. It’s not hard to see how pro-ana can be highly appealing, effective and damaging in its use to support eating disorder behaviour. But it it’s also not hard to see how exposure to run-of-the-mill presentations of the body can have a negative impact on any of us. The shame engendered in me when I was anorexic is little different from the shame that arises today when I compare myself to what feels like every-other-person on my Instagram feed.
I wonder how universal this is. How many other young men feel compelled to compare themselves to pictures of ultra-fit suntanned six-packs? Do any of them find it hard to shrug off feelings of shame that might arise? I wonder why some people are able to dismiss voices that advocate perpetual enhancement of our physical fitness and appearance, whilst others are so compelled to change themselves that they resort to tools such as disordered eating, expensive diets, cosmetic procedures or steroid abuse.
To help us unpack the way in which our virtual lives impact our mental health and wellbeing, more research is needed for a start. Considering the risks and rewards of the digitally-connected life, greater education around how to stay safe online is a necessity, especially for young people. A solution to the specific issue of pro-ana has to also involve a consideration of social and cultural norms around body image. Understanding this more extreme content only highlights the nature of normative market forces which promote and then commodify anxieties around appearance and dissatisfaction with the body.
Combating pro-ana involves social media platforms taking down content, but also tackling the reasons why people may create pro-ana content in the first place. There don’t appear to be straightforward answers to this. Just like understanding eating disorders involves comprehending contradictions and ambivalence, the intentions of pro-ana creators are equally unclear and potentially coloured by psychological ill-health.
Until our society provides comprehensive, well-equipped services that ensure anyone experiencing an eating disorder can access treatment in a timely way, the risk posed by pro-ana and other pro-eating disorder content will remain unacceptably high. The compulsive and insidious nature of an eating disorder is most powerfully reduced by the presence of a hopeful, viable alternative. Together, we must do all we can to build more accessible pathways towards recovery, so that old and unhealthy avenues become less necessary, and new beginnings can be made in the confidence that another way is possible.
Useful websites and helplines: