DIGITAL YOUTH RESEARCH

Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media

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"Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives. Read more

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"You're Just Another Fatty:" Creating a Pro-Ana Subculture Online

For girls who are hardcore about being skinny.
But on the contrary,
We are not in anyway trying to encouraging ED!
But, we ARE Pro-Ana/Mia.
If you are trying to/are recover/recovered, don't join.

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.

Hi CJ, The question that one

Hi CJ,
The question that one of the site members had regarding the moderators ("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...") is really interesting and raised a set of questions for me. On these sites, have you or Dr. Boero seen a lot of appeal to moderators? Is there a consistent role that moderators take across the sites? Do they respond to the appeals, and if so how? Anyhow, I am looking forward to hearing more about all of this. - Dan

Why arent these sites being

Why arent these sites being shut down? many of the girls in them seem way young, with questionable pictures, and the fact that they are encouraging eachother to slowly kill themselves, i dont know, if I knew there were sites like this, I would want to know there was something I could do if they were encouraging my child to kill herself.

That is an interesting

That is an interesting question. The discussion groups we studied for this project no longer exist. Presumably they were taken down by the owners of the social network site that hosted them.

Hi Dan, Actually, we don't

Hi Dan,

Actually, we don't see a lot of appeal to the moderators. However, the groups that were around for the longest, seemed to have the strictest moderators. These moderators required that members keep their "groups" hidden on their homepages and regularly deleted people who didn't abide by the guidelines of the discussion groups (whatever those were). On the shorter lived groups, the discussions tended to be more freewheeling and involved less regulation by the moderators. Of course, this is a small sample, so make of these conclusions what you will!

I just recently learned about

I just recently learned about these websites and they really made me think about these girls, about how they think, why they do it. I have visited many of these sites and while some of them do say they dont promote it the things on these websites the things they tell each other the pictures the quotes, they don't seem like they are putting realistic ideals in these girls' and guys' heads. They seem to be promoting it making it go further, denoting everything these girls have probably been told by their doctors, teachers, families, and friends. Did this bother you as much as it did me when you first started looking at these sites? Is there anyone trying to stop these sites or are they just ignoring the problem as well? This is really bothering me that they can just post this and there isn't any sort of backlash to it. These girls are killing themselves. I don't think the help issue is debatable at all they have "thinspiration" and quotes telling these girls that if they give up the fight they are weaker somehow. Not only that but they help eachother hide their ED and what foods are best and what foods aren't. All I know is I am 18 and I could know these girls and I really had no idea. I'm extremely against this. How do i make this known to the right people?