By Jess Goulart
Photo by Christy McKenna.
“Food is poison, starving is the best way to get rid of the toxic fat clinging to my body”
“HEY LADIES. Okay Halloween is in a few days, and omg what does that mean???? Alot of candy and ALOT of calories!
Come on ladies lets push through, put down that candy you fat pig, dont take that first bite, it all goes down from there, IS IT REALLY WORTH IT?
I THINK NOT!!!
Stay strong, its the night you can be whatever you want to be, why not let it be the skinniest and strongest of them all 😉
Good luck I’m going to start a daily blog on how I’m doing hoping you can blog on your profiles to, so we can all help each other and get our acts together and NEVER stop, til the number on the scale is 0 :)”
These entries are pulled from real blogs, and as you probably surmised, their aim is to encourage anorexia.
The online movement known as “pro-ana,” is by no means anomalous. These sites display images of young women so thin their bones jut out, deadly how-to’s for severely limiting your calories (as low as 100 per day), and “thinspirational” quotes such as the one pictured below.
Screenshot of @confessionsofit Twitter account.
The content of these sites will probably shock you, but read through it and you will find that these young (primarily) women are not claiming themselves as victims of a disease. Rather, they are re-appropriating both the concept and the word anorexia to be a positive lifestyle choice centered around control. As The Social Issues Research Center points out, “pro-ana” participants even go so far as to distinguish themselves as “rexies;” individuals who feel empowered and happy by their choice, rather than “anorexic;” the people who have a disease.
Of course, this kind of movement typically isn’t talked about in public. However, the fact that it surfaces from behind the safety of a screen represents certain sentiments that exist in our society. When analyzed, it’s clear the pro-ana movement is indicative of several subtle cultural tendencies surrounding the American standard of beauty and approach to weight loss.
Lest we forget, weight loss is a $20 billion industry in the US, resulting in a plethora of unsustainable, hyped solutions aimed at luring in the 69 percent of people over 20 deemed overweight by the CDC. Even the most popular diet programs use tools that mirror the exact descriptions found in pro-ana blogs.
For example, the Weight Watchers program revolves around learning to control intake through a points system. Counting calories, weekly weigh-ins, and food journaling is part of the game. While such a program may appear helpful for those overweight, or at the very least benign, studies show that 35 percent of normal dieters progress to developing an eating disorder.
The sentiment behind such dieting habits is easily translatable to the underweight population. CJ Pascoe, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon, pointed out in an article in The Society Pages that “what [pro-ana bloggers] are telling each other to do is exactly what [mainstream society is] telling fat people to do. [Take] what we see as problematic in these communities, cut-and-paste it into a Weight Watchers website and it’s seen as legitimate practice around legitimate weight loss.”
Thus, the pro-ana community promotes the same highly irrational demands as the weight loss community at large. The parallels exhibited by different facets of American weight loss culture indicate that people focus more on achieving dramatic results than on healthy solutions.
While the pro-ana blogs clearly point to America’s current standards of beauty, there are similar examples of women holding themselves to various other physical extremes throughout history. Author of the Four Pounds Flour blog and historic gastronomer Sarah Lohman cites a book from the 19th century as an example.
“Lola Montez was a celebrity from the 1830’s to the 1850’s, like the Madonna of the 19th century,” Lohman tells BTR. “She wrote a book called The Arts of Beauty, regarded as the beauty bible for women, and in her introduction she lays out these kind of guidelines of what real beauty is.”
Montez writes a handful of precise rules, like a perfectly round face, slender ankles, milky white skin, wide hips, and so on. Though these standards may contrast what we perceive as beautiful today (when’s the last time you thought about your ankles?), the overall fixation on particular physical extremities seems strikingly similar to the severity of the guidelines outlined in contemporary pro-ana blogs.
The commonality between Montez’ instructions and the pro-ana blogs signifies that the desired qualities are arbitrary and are perhaps not the root of the problem. There is, however, one underlying thread–that women have always been told their natural state is simply not good enough.
Why? Part of the reason is that, because like weight loss, beauty is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Just to give you an idea: a comprehensive report from The Beauty Company estimates MAC sells one lipstick and one eye shadow every two seconds. In America, cosmetic, beauty, and specialty stores have a combined revenue of $10 billion annually.
Women are constantly told that their skin is too tan or too white, that their body hair is gross, or that their natural hair color isn’t pretty enough. Part of this pressure is presumably to support the booming beauty business. When this idea of never being good enough is paired with society’s obsession with weight loss, it’s unsurprising that women are encouraged to lose weight until they literally die from it. They go through the continuous process thinking if they can just drop a few more pounds they will achieve perfection.
Lohman points out an interesting comment that Montez makes at the end of her introduction:
“After outlining this whole long list of beauty standards, she writes, ‘it is very fortunate, however, that all men do not have exact taste in the matter of female beauty.’”
Lohman concludes that even 150 years ago, it was women holding each other to these standards much more than men.
“It’s women getting on those sites encouraging other women to be anorexic,” she emphasizes, “it’s us holding ourselves to those crazy standards of beauty.”
That type of interaction is perhaps the harshest truth gleaned from the pro-ana sites. In a world where Emma Watson speaks on feminism for the masses at the UN, Anita Sarkeesian publishes a manifesto on the objectification of female video game characters, the Marvel and DC franchises announce leading female superheroes, and gender equality is purportedly on the rise, women still feel compelled to hold each other to unattainable physical standards.
Unless society begins to empower women in some other way, the toxic, obsessive body image sentiments will always permeate.