'Ana', for the uninitiated, is the personification of my good (bad) friend, and hopefully not yours - Ms anorexia herself. Sites named in her honour, touting hints and tips for how to starve oneself to death, were rife at one time, until someone quite rightly decided that they'd be culled, along with their sister, 'Pro-mia' (bulimia) sites.
After the cull, nothing changed. Ana sites just added in transparent disclaimers:
"This is a site dedicated to the support or recovery of those suffering from eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorders. Please be sensitive to this fact when creating an account and contributing to the board."
This seems a little out of place at the top of a forum which in its description on Google calls itself 'the leading pro-ana forum and community to discuss diets, thinspiration, results and find pro ana support groups'. We'll move on to 'thinspiration' later. Be prepared for that, don't sit down with a nice meal in front of you and save that bit to read, will you.
As a 30-something woman, I'd guess the majority of the writers and posters on these sites to be early teens, which makes them even more scary, but the content also raises some interesting considerations. There is usually one board for the oldies, but the language is very different as you might expect. We know how dangerous it is, but we do it anyway. It seems hopeless. I use these forums when I feel hungry. People have visible 'tickers' showing their weight loss, many of them for BMI (body mass index) with a goal of 16. We're grown ups, yet we want our bodies to shrink to the size of children.
The fact that most of the users are children only adds to the mystery - I think a lot of the problem comes from the medical professionals dealing with eating disorders. At what point does someone become anorexic? How can a body mass index (BMI) be an accurate measure of illness? Weight is deceiving after all. If you find reading about weight triggering, please don't continue reading - the very last thing I want is for something I've written to add to another's misery. That's definitely not the point of this blog. The competitive element of these forums is what bothers me the most - it draws me in and makes me take part to be the thinnest. You'd be surprised how it IS about being thin. Not just control, as we're told so often in the media.
Psychiatry often relies on several shaky pointers to diagnose anorexia and other EDs or EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified - catchy name huh!), all of which I deem to be completely unreliable. Body mass index - my consultant gets out his little cardboard wheel of weight vs height, and as long as I stay above a certain number that's outside the normal range but not considered 'critical' I'm fine to just go back out into the world. If I don't, I get shut into a big house full of other people who may or may not have similarly chosen to lose a lot of weight. So why am I the odd one out again? I feel like an ana-fraud. This system also relies on me being honest about my weight - thus far nobody's made me stand on the scales.
To be technical, I don't have 'an eating disorder', I have 'disordered eating'. Apparently I'm standing at the crossroads, trying to decide whether to have an ED and relinquish all the DBT skills I've learned by choosing that path - because 'DBT doesn't work for anorexia'. Sucks for me then that I can't see where I vote on this at all. We're told that no mental illness is a choice, aren't we? But I know I'm definitely not the only one who restricts what they eat to be thin. I like feeling my hip bones. I like wearing size 6 clothes and being able to slot myself into small spaces. I can't let go of my illness easily.
The first time ana reared her ugly thin head, I was still at school. Cue arguments over the dinner table and smashed plates as my mother despaired at my refusal to sit down and eat with the family. The second time I was 21 and in the midst of the break up from hell. I was taken to the Priory by my mother after being asked not to keep coming to the local gym, because they were worried about how thin I was and how much exercise I was doing. After a successful ana diagnosis (does that label stick for life, or do you need to get a new one each time you relapse?) I decided I didn't want to put on the required stone to meet the goal they'd set for me, and went to university instead. Probably a big mistake, but what's done is done.
So, do I think the 'pro-ana' sites serve a purpose? Well, yes they do if you want to look at 'thinspiration' - it's like porn for people with anorexia. Images of very thin people, and I mean VERY thin, skeletons with skin. It's how we get off. But there're also plenty of fellow crazies with big eyes who can validate your craziness and get you through when things get really dark. People you can be completely honest with. They know it, they live it too.
Right now I'm hanging by a thread. I'm not standing at any crossroads. This is just happening to me, and then one day it'll stop. It always does.