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Why Blocking 'Pro-Ana' Sites Is a Bad Idea

Blocking pro-ana will not make eating disorders go away. If only! Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses with a whole range of causes, and simply looking at some thinspo will not give you an eating disorder unless you're already susceptible.

[Trigger warning: extensively discusses pro-ana communities/sites and eating disorders]

You've heard about "pro-ana", right? Those corners of the internet where people with eating disorders congregate to talk about their disorders, share tips for losing weight, and photographs known as 'thinspiration' (thin + inspiration, aka 'thinspo'). Pretty grim, isn't it? Horrifying, even. All those skeletal bodies and 'goal weights' (always in lbs) that are way down into the double digits and waist measurements that seem appropriate only for eight-year-olds. Bad times all round really.

Already banned from Pinterest and Tumblr, the government may now be looking to block 'eating disorder websites' (which includes pro-ana) as part of its porn ban. You may legitimately be wondering what eating disorders have to do with porn, and you'd have a valid point, but it's probably best to think of the government's plans as a "Sneaky Block on Anything It Deems Adult Content", rather than just a "porn ban" per se.

So why do I, a semi-recovering anorexic, care about the blocking of pro-ana sites? Surely I'm in favour of it? Well, no.

I used to frequent pro-ana sites a lot. Daily, multiple times daily, obsessively reading and absorbing and fuelling my disorder. These sites are definitely damaging and I can personally attest to that. They make eating disorders worse for some people, I'm not denying it. However I still don't think they should be blocked.

The principle of freedom of expression entails that everyone has the right to communicate their ideas to other. Of course, in no country is this right absolute, with legal limitations placed upon it. Article 19 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights states that limitations on freedom of expression can be made on the grounds of "public health or morals." John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, introduces what is known as the 'harm principle', which has been interpreted as the idea that freedom of expression can be curtailed only if the expression causes harm to others.

On this basis, it would seem that pro-ana-based speech should perhaps be limited as it can harm others. However, there are a great many things that present potential harm to others that we do not think should be blocked when we balance the risk/benefits. For example cars. We don't think these things should be blocked because in the aggregate they do more positive than negative.

So, the question is, on aggregate, does pro-ana do more harm than good? Perhaps in my most controversial move yet, I'm going to outline some ways in which I think pro-ana sites can be positive, based on my personal experience of them.

Often mentioned in a wholly negative sense, the community aspect of pro-ana spaces on the internet should not be overlooked. Anorexia is a highly isolating condition, which very few people who haven't had it can understand. Moreover, it's also a condition that horrifies and disgusts many. Imagine going through your life with a mental illness that many people consider not only bad, but sickening and revolting. Or imagine being at a body weight that caused people to make comments about how grotesque your body was regularly. (note: 1. I'm not suggesting this experience is limited to people with anorexia, far from it. 2. Not all people with anorexia are at extremely low body weights, but some are.) So in addition to the isolation of being ill in a well world there's further isolation caused by this particular condition.

Now imagine finding a community of people who understood your day-to-day, minute-to-minute struggle and were there to provide support and friendship. This would be a good thing, no? Well apparently not, if all the people in the community share the common factor of having eating disorders. What could be viewed as a positive thing is suddenly condemned, as anorexics famously 'make each other worse.' While this can be true - anorexia can be a competitive disorder (and I speak from personal experience of this) - this view seems to cement the idea that people with anorexia are toxic to be around. How dehumanising is that? No, people with eating disorders are not toxic to be around and have every right to discuss their disorders within their own communities, on their own terms. Would people recommend people with psychosis be banned from talking to each other in case they exacerbate each other's symptoms? It seems unlikely, but where eating disorders are concerned this seems the standard view.

One has to wonder why anorexia/eating disorders provoke such strong responses. Part of it, I'm convinced, is down to paternalism and sexism.

The typical demographic people have in mind when discussing anorexia and eating disorders are teenage girls, even though this is a grossly distorted portrait of who is actually affected by them. Imagining these emaciated teenage girls discussing their body weights and mental illnesses seems to provoke the paternalism in a lot of people - of course they should be banned from doing so, they're making each other worse! But don't these young people also have the right to talk about their disorders in a self-determined space? The impulse to protect people who use pro-ana spaces from themselves and others seems particularly strong, apparently strong enough to even override their basic rights of freedom of expression and assembly.

There is also the persistent belief that people with mental illness are unable to make good decisions about their lives, or should be prevented from making bad decisions. That view is deeply disablist, not to mention immensely infantilising. People with mental illnesses are just like everyone else and must be free to make bad decisions, just as anyone else is.

Unless detained under the Mental Health Act, people with mental illnesses are legally allowed to do this, just the same as everyone else. We are not rendered incapacitated just because we have a mental illness, despite the protectionist impulses of many. This also risks setting an alarming precedent whereby people with mental illnesses (who are not sectioned) are deemed unable of making a great many other choices that could harm them. Should all people with mental illnesses be banned from smoking or drinking because it might harm them? Of course not, to do so would be seen as a gross encroachment of rights and alarmingly interventionist.

So the argument that pro-ana communities should be blocked because they foster communication between people with mental illnesses is clearly wrong-headed. However, I said I would make a positive argument for why pro-ana communities can be beneficial.

For a condition that can be deeply isolating, the shared sense of community and struggle that one can find in pro-ana communities can be positive. Suddenly you are no longer alone with your disorder and have other people to talk to about it. Friendships are formed. Support is given. You could argue that these friendships are toxic and the support is for a negative end goal, but, again, many friendships are toxic and nobody is talking about banning those.

In addition, I do not believe that pro-ana communities cause eating disorders. Undoubtedly, they can exacerbate prior eating disorders but most people who frequent pro-ana communities would basically be doing what they're doing anyway. Because they have a mental illness that tells them to restrict/purge.

If we take away the one place people feel comfortable discussing their eating disorders, we risk further isolating people with eating disorders and condemning them to a life spent suffering alone. At least with pro-ana sites you at least have someone to share it with. (Of course, I am not arguing that this is ideal, but it is better than nothing in my opinion.)

A second aspect that is frequently overlooked is the impact of people leaving the pro-ana community. People seem to think that once you get 'sucked into' pro-ana spaces that's it; you're stuck there and are condemned to getting worse until you die. I think maybe people who think this haven't spent a lot of time actually in pro-ana communities, because this isn't really how it works.

People frequently leave and go on with the journey to recovery. Normally they post a goodbye message so that people know that they've decided to make a go of recovery. I know this sounds silly, but these messages can be really powerful, particularly if you know the person well or have followed them for a long time. They serve as reminders that recovery is an option. Moreover, they're much more powerful that the drive-by 'eat a sandwich, you're disgusting!!!' posts that non-eating disordered people sometimes make (something that is unbelievably unhelpful, please never do this) as they're from people who have been there and decided to take the other path.

Finally, pro-ana sites can, despite the frequent insistence that anorexia is a 'lifestyle choice', actually finally ram home the point that what you have is actually a mental illness and it's called anorexia nervosa. By associating with people who are obviously ill, you can come to recognise the illness in yourself. And recognising it as an illness is the first step to recovery. It may sound trite, but if you have anorexia and you don't believe you're ill, then all the effort in the world by others will not make a scrap of difference because you don't think you're sick or need help.

There are also problems with the specific proposal of blocking pro-ana sites.

Firstly, blocking it just risks driving it further underground, into more dangerous parts of the internet which are completely unregulated. Research has also found that due to crackdowns on pro-ana sites, health information about recovery is now less likely to reach the people with eating disorders that use these sites. "In sum, censorship means bad news for health care providers and policy makers alike. These results cast serious doubts on the effectiveness of repression...It will become increasingly hard for physicians, families and charities to reach out to [pro-eating disorder] online communities if they become ever more secluded and inward-oriented."

Additionally, the idea that blocking them will force people to go to pro-recovery sites instead is unfortunately rather ridiculous. One of the main features of anorexia is that for a lot of people with it, and for a long time, they/we do not want help. They either don't believe they're sick or don't want to get better. I would not have gone to a pro-recovery site instead had pro-ana been banned during my worst years, because I either a) didn't think I was sick, or b) had absolutely no desire to not be anorexic. This also dichotomises the two types of sites - pro-ana and pro-recovery - when in reality they are much more hard to distinguish from each other.

Blocking pro-ana will not make eating disorders go away. If only! Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses with a whole range of causes, and simply looking at some thinspo will not give you an eating disorder unless you're already susceptible.

Ultimately, the argument for curtailing the freedom of expression and assembly of people in pro-ana communities is being based (apparently) on the harm principle. However, as I have shown, pro-ana communities are complex entities with positive aspects as well as negatives.

Instead of simply blocking them, I think we need to have an open discussion about pro-ana, which includes people who actually use the sites, not just those who have historically, or who have just read a couple of outraged newspaper articles.

Additionally, the claim that they do more harm than good is an empirical one, one that needs some actual data to make the argument. We do not have that data. But no, the government is seemingly just planning to block it on the basis of supposed harm.

It seems that this ban has more to do with paternalism and judgemental disgust than anything else. Time and time again pro-ana sites are described as horrifying, scary, terrible, damaging, disgusting, and so on. But a feeling of disgust is not an argument for taking away someone's community.


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