Disclaimer: I am a recovered anorexic. It’s been many, many years since I was very sick, or at least a period of time that feels pretty substantial to a 24-year-old. Everyone’s triggers are different. I have not owned a scale since high school, but I can talk about past restrictive behaviors and things like BMI without triggering myself. This is part of my own personal recovery narrative, and I am not suggesting that pro-ana blogs be used as a recovery tool by other young girls (or anyone).
TL; DR: This is your trigger warning.
Even in the you-do-you, let your freak flag fly corners of the Internet, most people still view “pro-ana” blogs and forums with the kind of knee-jerk revulsion generally reserved for things like child porn. I’ve heard that the girls curating thinspo galleries are sick and wrong for glamorizing eating disorders, that they teach impressionable young girls that would otherwise have totally healthy self-images how to starve themselves. I disagree.
Defenders of the pro-ED community always start with the generic but true argument that these pages don’t give people eating disorders. Thinspiration -- an admittedly misguided tricks on hiding damaging behaviors -- don’t teach girls to have eating disorders any more than organizational or cleaning tips teach people to have OCD. Swapping lists of “negative calorie” foods and celebrity BMIs is a symptom, not a cause, and I will simply never believe that it is a bad thing to give girls who are struggling with a lonely mental illness a place where they can confide in each other.
Anorexia is not your junior high sleepovers, where you all would say how fat you were while flipping through teen magazines and then demolish a large pizza. Anorexia, for me, was a confusing and solitary time when I couldn’t even explain why I hated and hurt myself. The pro-ana community helped me realize that what I was doing was difficult and not normal, that it had a name, and that I wasn’t alone.
Ironically, if unsurprisingly, I found pro-ana sites through an article vilifying their very existence. Plenty of anorexics will tell you that you can find just as many tips and tricks from recovery memoirs and pearl-clutching cautionary tales as you do on pro-ana blogs (like the Lifetime movie about an anorexic college girl that helpfully suggested the nice, round number of 1,000 crunches to burn off one dessert).
As a Midwestern 13-year-old who wanted more than anything to be thin, the idea that there were sites dedicated to fasting and losing weight was anything but horrifying: it was enticing. I did not have my own computer yet, but I spent an hour or two after school each day hanging out at my mom’s office, where there were unattended computers I could use to play games or do homework.
I started to cruise pro-ana sites almost every single day. This was pre Tumblr, pre Instagram, pre #thighgaps. Anorexic, bulimic, and EDNOS webmistresses set up communities on forums and GIF-tastic Angelfire pages. Girls living with eating disorders between 2000 and 2008 will surely remember the distinctive look of red or neon green curlicue fonts, black backgrounds, and threatening landing pages warning casual dieters or trolls to back off and not enter the hallowed chatrooms within. Fiona Apple lyrics and skulls were popular.
At first, I thought of it as research. You don’t have to label yourself as anorexic to be one. I still considered my restrictive diet as “being careful about what I ate,” but don’t think for one second that my online activities taught me how to have an eating disorder. The pro-ED community simply defined what was already happening. Reading other girls express the same anxieties and insecurities that I felt lifted a huge weight from my shoulders.
I did not have the strength or self-awareness to identify myself as anorexic until after I “recovered,” but pro-ana gave a face to the horror and anxiety I felt about eating. Considering that I was surviving on 400-900 calories a day and the occasional bar/bat mitzvah party binge, had a BMI of roughly 14, and ingrew all of my clothes as a supposedly growing teen, this may seem like a “duh” moment.
But I started starving myself to be skinny when I was 12. Eating disorders, on the other hand, were something that existed in the aforementioned Lifetime movies and memoirs and Oprah specials. My narratives were of bone thin, skeletal girls in hospital beds. They were untouchable, elegant ballerinas. They were not teen girls like myself, some thin and some not, struggling with an obsession with food that defined their entire existence. They were mature and distant in their suffering.
These girls online were like me, from the nosy parents to the early emo lyrics typed up on their profiles. I wasn’t normal, but I wasn’t alone. The way that I felt had a name and a goal and a recovery network, if I wanted one.
Anorexia would be there for me.
One hallmark of the pro-ana sites of old was personifying the disease (this is probably still true, I’ll admit I haven’t kicked around an ED forum in a hot minute). On the blogs and forums I stalked, anorexia wasn’t a cold, clinical, mental illness. “Ana” was a wraith, and a friend, and a bully. Ana wanted the best for you. Ana wanted you all to herself. Ana reminded you of your failures. Ana kicked you while you were down. Even as a tortured teen, these haunting visions of “Ana” and “Mia” as bitchy, life-ruining girls that would beat you into submission until you broke and said thank you seemed a little melodramatic, but it rang true.
I could try to get better. I could admit to my mother that what she’d suspected was true, that I couldn’t control myself around food and I was starving, quite literally, all the time. You’re not supposed to say this about recovery, but knowing that I could always turn back and be welcomed by my old frenemy “Ana” with open arms was comforting. I could try this. I could get better. I could see what life was like focused on something, anything, other than food and the numbers on the scale. Ana would wait. Once you let her in, ana will always be there for you. My life might not.
I knew how bad I didn’t want to get.
Finally, and I don’t feel good about this, but months of consuming every detail of other girls’ experiences helped me realize that I did not want to get worse. Something that always stung when I was sick (and, if I’m being honest, still brings back the ol’ self-loathing a little bit) was that I was never so gravely ill that I was hospitalized.
For one, it’s less noticeable to be extremely thin when you’re a 13-year-old dancer than say, a 5’ 7” grad student. I got lightheaded in class, sure. Once, I had to obediently eat a handful of Peanut M&M’s after almost fainting at a seventh grade dance team rehearsal. I was thin and hungry, but I was far away from the precipice of heart attacks and lanugo (the soft, downy hair that covers newborns and often pops up on the cheeks and legs of malnourished ladies and gents).
At the time, the fact that I didn’t have a heart murmur seemed like a failure. I felt that such horrible side effects would be concrete proof that I was thin, no more or less frightening than visible hipbones or counting the spaces between my ribs.
But after countless hours of reading and looking, a tiny voice (one that I wouldn’t listen to for a while, but a voice all the same) told me I might be lucky. Girls started their first stint in rehab triumphant, defiant, leaving readers with farewell posts detailing the liters of water they planned to chug before weigh-in and their fury at being committed. But on the second or third trip, they often sounded defeated, exhausted, less sure they wanted to stay with ana forever.
I decided that I no longer wanted to be thin more than I wanted to be happy. I wanted to go to my friend’s birthday party and not count how many tortilla chips she ate, to be able to change into a bikini and not wonder if I had forgotten to scrub off the goal weight scrawled across my stomach in permanent marker. I don’t remember the first time I told someone I was hungry after years of considering the admission that I wanted food a humiliating failure on par with arriving naked to the school dance. But I finally did, and it became easier every time until I could finally ask for cheese fries at a restaurant without spending the rest of the night in a blind panic that everyone thought I was a cow.
Every once in a while, I fall into a #thighgaps or #ana hole on Instagram and spend too many minutes scrolling through pictures of self-harm and high-waisted short shorts hanging off of impossibly tiny hips. But if you keep going, you’ll find the Instagram-ers documenting their recovery, snapping pics of the tiny portions they are struggling so hard to eat. Of the girls that slipped from a diet, to a disorder, to a cycle of self-harm they would now give anything to break. And it reminds me why I don’t have a thigh gap or a sharp-edged spine anymore, and what I’m not willing to do to get it back.