I have a number of issues with Channel 4’s ‘Supersize vs. Superskinny’ programme, which returned for a new series last night. However, I often find myself watching to ‘keep an eye’ on the messages they are promoting. There are so many areas I could discuss but the purpose of this post is the reflections it prompted for me on the topic of pro-eating disorder (pro-ED) websites (often referred to as pro-ana or pro-mia sites, using the abbreviated versions of the illness names to promote a familiarity with, or even personification of , the condition), which they included as a feature in the first episode. I wanted to consider my view on the ‘should they be banned’ debate, as well as analyse my own experience of engaging with them from an occupational perspective.
What was my experience?
When I had an eating disorder (ED) I initially drifted towards some excellent recovery forums and websites designed to provide peer-support to people who had EDs. They provided me with some understanding and insight into my experience and I could tell I wasn’t alone, but they didn’t quite ‘fit’. The problem was that I wasn’t in recovery. I wasn’t ready to consider it and so any support given wasn’t congruent with the situation I was in. I soon discovered the world of pro-ED sites. While I did come across the type often cited in the media – those promoting anorexia as a normal lifestyle choice, or those involving high levels of competitiveness between members – the majority were simply spaces for people living with a very challenging illness to find a shared understanding and support.
The site I mostly used allowed sections for posting ‘thinspo’ (images designed to motivate people to meet their goals), and also posted things like the foods we’d eaten or binged on that day, however tip-sharing was strictly prohibited by a moderating team. Along side the ‘encouraging’ posts there were serious posts about emotions, challenges, recovery as well as a forum full of games and distractions to help cope with the isolation often experienced when eating disordered. I’ve already acknowledged in Self-Defeating Meaningful Occupation that these sites provided me with a level of companionship. I made real friends there – some of whom I am still in contact with now that we’ve made our individual steps into a life after an eating disorder. I never felt that the sites prevented recovery – when someone was ready to recover they were supported to do so genuinely and sensitively. The nature of social media use meant that supportive friendships could be maintained through sites like Facebook or via MSN Messenger (it was a little while ago…) for those who wanted to step away from the site. For me, the pro-ED site definitely maintained my eating disorder – it provided a space where I was accepted and some level of comfort. However, I feel things could have been much worse without it.
Should pro-ED sites be banned?
I was never under any illusion that my eating disorder was healthy, ‘normal’ or ‘OK’ but I felt I needed it and was unable to stop. It provided me with a means to cope with high levels of distress and really was a lifeline at a very difficult point in my life, as well as nearly killing me. That’s the thing with eating disorders, they are full of conflict; allowing survival whilst simultaneously contributing to demise. Perhaps that’s the reason why it’s hard to have a clear view on pro-ED sites – they sustained my life AND my eating disorder.
I don’t feel proud of my engagement in the site – I hate to think I could have encouraged someone else to develop or maintain an eating disorder by discussing what I’d eaten that day, however, I was very unwell and have compassion for myself. I also worry about those people for whom a pro-ED site makes their eating disorder worse (mine was very serious long before I found the websites). I don’t believe, however, that a website like that can create an eating disorder that doesn’t already exist. Perhaps the question should be, ‘Do pro-ED sites encourage eating disorders to be sustained and potentially cause harm?’. I suspect they do. I also suspect that their existence saves an equal number of lives by providing a level of understanding that pro-recovery sites cannot, for those not ready to consider recovery. I feel very sad that there are still thousands of people out there who will tonight be posting on a pro-ED site, I wish there was a way to take away all of their problems this instant. Sadly that’s not realistic. I don’t know how I feel about banning the pro-ED sites. I don’t want to glorify them or say they’re OK, they really aren’t, BUT they do provide something very valuable and I really feel that without them I would not still be alive. Perhaps a greater understanding of the function they serve would be more useful that debating whether they should exist?
What did the occupation of being involved in a Pro ED site involve?
The occupation of posting on a pro-ED site involved so much! It was something I felt was a classic ‘self-defeating meaningful occupation’ meeting many of the occupational needs highlighted in the linked blog post. The forum provided a frame for my day – allowing conversation about emotional issues, current affairs or ‘fun’ topics as well as a space to report the food-based occupations I’d participated in. I developed habits relating to times of day I would post in the various sub-types of forum (evenings were about food, day time about distraction). Also, due to the international nature of participants, there would always be someone online to chat with when chronic insomnia meant you were wide awake at 4am. I also established roles; from ‘newbie’, to established member, to friend. At a time in my life when relationships were very challenging this was significant and valued. I understand my engagement with this occupation as being one that synthesised experiences of productivity, pleasure and restoration (Pierce, 2003) in such a way that made it very fulfilling and important to me. The pro-ED site was a perfect record of all the energy I was putting into my eating disorder – there were significant elements of productivity involved and this almost felt like the ‘office-end’ of the job – the public (but anonymous) record of my work. The pleasure came from elements of satisfaction at this productivity as well as the connections with others and the light-hearted conversations that were had (which, when in a dark, all-consuming abyss of an eating disorder, was quite remarkable). The restoration was experienced as it was a place of acceptance of, and occasionally peace with, the chaotic world I was living in. I did not have to hide the life I was living (I use the term loosely), I could be me – someone in the grips of a very serious eating disorder.
I hope this post provides a little more insight into what the experience of engaging in pro-ED sites was really like, for me at least. I think the image portrayed in the media is very short-sighted and the problem is much more complex than described.I honestly don’t know what the answer is, but I think it might need to be the ‘question’ that is reconsidered first.
Pierce, D (2003). Occupation by Design, Building Therapeutic Power. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.