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The above warning appears on the front page of a popular pro-anorexia internet discussion group, Hard Core Anorexic (1). On this site and countless others, women separated by geography, age and lifestyle log in to share their struggles, goals, triumphs and failures in living a "pro-ana" lifestyle. Anorexia, long the staple of after-school specials and public service announcements, may have fallen off the national radar screen, edged out by public panic about obesity. Nevertheless with increasing access to new media, those with (or claiming to have) eating disorders have congregated outside of hospitals and clinics, crafting a thriving pro-eating disorder community on the internet. While some of those with eating disorders seek and develop recovery oriented spaces online, others, such as the members of Hard Core Anorexic, specifically cultivate "pro-ana" communities. As a result there is a thriving online subculture characterized by specific symbols, rituals and the identity of the "wannarexic." Together with Dr. Natalie Boero, I've been examining 15 pro-eating disorder online discussion groups, with about 35,000 members, the vast majority of whom identify as female.
One of the primary symbols in these groups is the "goddess Ana." Group participants personify anorexia and bulimia by giving them feminine nicknames - Ana and Mia. Members talk about praying or talking to Ana, frequently deified as a goddess or angel, and asking her for support. Nelly even posted a picture of the "goddess Ana" on one of her discussion groups. Toni, who finds herself struggling to maintain her goal of weight loss, posted a plea in the group Diseased and Dashing, "I have been so frustrated because I have hardly been losin' any weight lately and eat almost nothing. I used to eat like 300 calories a day and lose more weight. I dunno... any advice? I so need support right now." Hanna responded, "Has goddess Ana visited you yet?" Jessica, also in search of inspiration, then posted, "I NEED HER TO VISIT ME." Hanna concluded the discussion by telling the others, "You are nothing until goddess Ana has visited you. Until then....you're just another fatty." Participants wrote about Ana as a goddess, an angel and sometimes a friend who they wanted to "visit" them, so that they wouldn't end up as "just another fatty." While members personify bulimia, no one prays Mia or claims that Mia visits them in their dreams. In fact Mia plays the devil to Ana's angel. As Nelly put it, "Mia is a tormenter." Women in these groups regard bulimia as a fall back practice for when their ana practice of calorie restriction fail. For these women Mia represents a lack of control. Thus, Mia is not deified in the same way Ana is. Symbols such as Ana, Mia, colored bracelets, "thinspiration" pictures, poetry and songs provide common culture objects for participants in the pro-ana community.
Participants also engage in a series of rituals in order to grapple with tensions around embodiment and disembodiment particular to the pro-ana online community. Authenticity is a fraught subject in these groups because their topics revolve around offline bodily practices. Rituals such as weight check-ins, photographic verifications of body size, feedback requests, group fasts, and food reports help to make offline bodily practices evident in an online discussion group. In one post Nelly initiated a weigh-in ritual in which she asks "Who's Ana with me?" and then requests that participants engage in a "Stats check in" where they post their "Current weight, goal weight, highest and lowest weights." Participants in the group then obliged by posting the requested information. Some participants also post photographic verification of their body size. These posts are often accompanied with a request for feedback about whether the they have lost weight, gained weight or how much weight others think they have yet to lose. For instance, Sally posted "before" and "after" pictures of her legs and stomach writing, "I'm so self conscious. So tell me if you think I lost any weight. The first pic was taken a month ago. The second pic was taken today. I wore same thing for both pics so maybe people can tell if I lost any. Opinions? Oh Ana HELP ME I NEED TO LOSE MORE FASTER." Group members responded, some praising her on her weight loss and others criticizing her for not losing enough. Janet wrote, "From what I see, it's simply amazing! But your body's positioned a little differently. And in the first picture you might have eaten a lot that day or drank a lot or both and bloated up in a way... so I don't know how accurate those pictures are. How many pounds did you lose? Btw- you look beautiful now!!!!!!! <3 Keep it up." By posting pictures of themselves participants can bring the body online. Through rituals of sharing bodily statistics, bodily practices and bodily representations members of this pro-ana subculture signal to one another their offline practices and indicate that they are authentically pro-ana.
When a poster fails at verifying her authenticity other participants might label her a wannarexic, or someone who wants to be anorexic, but is not disciplined enough to do so and is thus simply a dieter. Posters on these pro-ana websites see themselves as more committed, more in control, and more dedicated to thinness than dieters who may go on and off diets or who are only looking to lose a few pounds. A wannarexic may want to lose a bit of weight for a special event, espouse conventional dieting wisdom or fail to restrict their eating enough to lose weight. The threat of being wannarexic informs the identities and fears of many participants. Emme, in an insecure moment posted on Hard Core Anorexic, "I go around saying that I have an eating disorder and that I am unhealthy. But the truth is that I don't even think I have one. I think I'm too fat to have one. I'm convinced that I'm just a 'wannarexic.'" Because she can't lose enough weight, this member fears she isn't a true anorexic. In other instances posters use the term as an insult to police group boundaries. Sally, angry at aggressive posts by new participants in the group Dying to be Thin, wrote "Why don't the moderators just DELETE these people so they don't annoy the others? Seems like if they're classified as wannarexic then they would be deleted to save all the REAL anorexics some grief...just an idea I dunno…lol..." The "wannarexic" is the primary figure of inclusion and exclusion deployed in these groups. For these women this term differentiates the true participants from those who are not serious about their eating disordered practices. Like other small groups they police these boundaries tightly, trying to ensure a cohesive group identity. Thus, in these discussion groups the wannarexic provides a necessary foil in the tricky business of deciding just who has an authentic eating disorder and who deserves the status that goes with that authenticity.
The national spotlight for the last decade has shone brightly on obesity and its presumed causes and effects. However, research out of both Britain and Australia indicate that anorexia and bulimia are on the rise. Whether or not these sites encourage young women to have eating disorders is debatable, what they do provide is a window in to a non-clinical population of people with eating disorders. These disorders have historically been experienced and treated as individual psychological and medical disorders. Women suffering from them usually came into contact with one another only in institutional settings. But with the rise of new media technologies and modes of communication, digital communities have provided new possibilities for connections between once isolated individuals. Thus these sites provide a glimpse into the meaning making practices of non-clinical populations. In this online subculture, participants often rework characterizations of anorexia as a disease by engaging in complex discussions of anorexia as a lifestyle choice in addition to or instead of a medical and psychological disorder. In crafting a complex community with unique symbols, rituals and identities these women provide a fuller picture of eating disorders and people who live with them, voluntarily or not.
(1) All group and individual names have been changed.
Citation: Pascoe, C.J.. 2008. "You're Just Another Fatty:" Creating a Pro-Ana Subculture Online. Digital Youth Research http://digitalyouth.ischool.berkeley.edu/node/104. January 22, 2008.