The contradictory world of “pro-anorexia” forums

Before you begin this article, please be aware that it contains details about my own eating disorder and experiences on ‘pro-ana’ forums. If you struggle with disordered behavior or body-image issues, it may be best to avoid reading on. I do not advocate the behaviors I describe.

I have been using “pro-anorexia” forums on and off for eight years. When I started, aged 14, I was at the height of my illness. To this day, ‘Ana Sophie’ lies nestled in my contact list, the ghost of an online friend with similar height/weight stats to me, her phone number long disconnected. I wonder if she is okay.

It used to be that I only turned to the forums when I was having a relapse. They were a shameful secret, a dark phenomenon that had sparked thousands of articles. I liked the infamy. It meant that logging in was the mark that I was really out of control.

Photo by Hanna Postova on Unsplash

I was out of control, undoubtedly. Pro-anorexia communities saw the posts that tracked the three weeks where I spat most of my meals out before swallowing them, the two weeks of the “ana boot camp” diet I managed before I fainted, the week I decided that standing in a cold shower would force me to burn calories to warm myself up. Like family photo albums, the forums archived all of my awkward phases. The most famous of the websites housed progress pictures of my hip bones sticking out more and more, my eyes sunken and gaunt on a camping trip, my head strangely large on my body.

Before I go any further, I have to address the terminology. One of the main websites I used proudly claims the phrase “pro-ana”, though I am fairly certain that they adopted the label after it had already caught on as the blanket term to describe anything which didn’t outright condemn and discourage disordered eating. The other websites I used were less keen on the term, not accepting the idea that they were promoting eating disorders though they would almost certainly be described as “pro-ana” websites regardless. I make this distinction clear not to claim that these websites don’t at least in part promote harm, but to acknowledge that they are nowhere near as deliberate or conscious of it as journalists might have you believe.

Ironically, the negative media attention only encouraged footfall. I, a bulimic, was willingly hurtling down the path of self-destruction. The press was holding up a flashing light that said ‘danger’ and pointing it towards eating disorder forums. I was only too happy to sign up.

Of course, I wasn’t quite sure what I was signing up for. I did not find the harsh, destructive world I was expecting. Despite hundreds of hours of online time, I cannot say with any certainty that being on the forums made my eating disorder worse. I went into recovery for the first time three months after sign up, deactivating my account. I returned to the communities every time I had a major relapse. I never found the magic diet or behavior that would help me hit my ‘ultimate goal weight’ — or ‘rock bottom’, as you may know it — but I found plenty of people who understood what I was experiencing.

I can’t pretend that my perspective on weight and food wasn’t warped in the process, but I have to give ‘pro-ana’ communities credit for being one of the only truly non-judgemental spaces I had ever been in.

At the core of these websites is tension. There is a sad camaraderie among hundreds of users who know, deep down, that they are hurting themselves and simply don’t want to fade away alone. On the other side, there is deep compassion for other users, general disgust at the promotion and glorification of eating disorders, and a surprisingly mature approach to community harm reduction. “Pro-Ana” websites helped me break binge/purge cycles by advocating for ‘high restriction’ of 1000–1400 calories instead of 100, taught me how to reduce the risk of oesophageal damage from vomiting, and (perhaps most importantly) talked me out of ordering a tapeworm online during one of my low points.

I never found the “Ana coach” who would bully me thin as so many articles had promised me. If anything, other users told me not to be too harsh on myself. There was a general discouragement of more dangerous practices like purging (expelling calories forcibly, usually by vomiting or laxative abuse) and, while plenty of posts about restriction existed, a strange guilt lingered over everything. People were only willing to advocate for harmful behavior insomuch as it allowed them to pretend their own restriction was not really a problem.

The darker sides of the websites, the parts most often quoted by journalists, were sites of mutual destruction. We were all seeking to be enabled in our disorders, spurred on by self-hatred; very few of us wanted to enable someone else in harming themselves. The result was a transaction tinged by shame. We all knew we were sick. We all knew that it was not going to change any time soon, the rot set deep into our brains. We were all exhausted from counting bites and avoiding suspicion and trying hard to pretend that we didn’t have a problem. So we were kind in a way that is hard to understand. We held space for people who were behaving in ways that we could never justify as healthy.

It was the willingness of this community to accept me at rock bottom that meant that I had a safe place to go when, in 2018, I decided to commit to recovery. I was nervous to post about it at first, mouse hovering over the ‘submit’ button. I explained to my peers that I wanted to give myself room to be happy. I needed to give myself a chance at a future.

I am so happy for you, read the first response. This is going to be tough, but I know that you’re strong enough for it.

I visited, for the first time, the recovery sections of the forums. There were threads to help you find ‘recovery buddies’, pages of discussion about the best in-patient treatment programs, advice on refeeding syndrome. I took part in recovery challenges, pushing myself to drink water and eat vegetables and stick to my meal plans. In some strange way, recovering in a ‘pro-ana’ environment is the reason that this time it mostly stuck. There was absolutely no pressure from anyone but me. I could be completely honest, surrounded by people who understood.

I officially left the world of pro-anorexia websites early last year with a teary goodbye post. I knew that to truly reclaim my life, I had to cut off my slightly screwed up support network like an infected limb. In the end, I didn’t message any of the friends that I had made over the years because I had no idea what to say to them. It felt like graduating from a school that I had hated but would miss all the same. I can’t claim that those years hunched over my laptop with a calorie tracking app open on my phone were a happy time in my life, let alone a healthy one, but I do know that they changed me in such a way that it would be impossible to define it as simply good or bad.

There is no way to claim that pro-anorexia websites aren’t harmful, and I don’t intend to do that. But I do want to acknowledge the fact that, for all their danger, there is a reason that many people stay on these websites past recovery. ‘Pro-ana’ forums provide the non-judgemental community that those with mental illness often lack.

In writing this article, I logged into my old account for one last look. On my profile was a guest post from an old friend.

I know you will probably never see this, but I hope you’re doing okay.

Sex worker, “””journalist””” and activist from the UK! // Tweets at: @LydiaCaradonna // works with: @ukdecrimnow // argues with: the government

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