Tuesday, March 27

Reframing eating disorders as a personal choice?

On a recent essay assignment, one of my students clued me in to a new term: "pro-ana."

The term, shockingly, is short for pro-anorexia.

I am aware that eating disorders exist, and that mass media plays a none-too-subtle role in reinforcing body image issues. In fact, that was the topic of the essay assignment (and to be clear, my student was reporting on the phenomenon, not encouraging it). But as I stared at the page, I wondered how anyone could reframe an eating disorder as a good thing? *shudder*
Image source
Pro-ana? Not only is there a cute-sounding term to describe this disordered behavior, the topic has gained a cult following on the interwebs. The Huffington Post provides a detailed analysis in their recent article "The Hunger Blogs." I would highly recommend that you read the article in full, but if you are short on time, here are some of the most shocking quotes from pro-ana bloggers interviewed for the story (note: thinspo = "thinspiration"):
Sixteen-year-old Antonia (last name withheld) also runs a popular, photo-based thinspo blog out of her bedroom. "I like images that show skinny, happy girls," she writes in an email to the Huffington Post. "They look so confident and we can see their bones through their skin. It's the most beautiful thing ever. I also like tips about food or how to ignore hunger."
And this one...
It documents addictive and compulsive behavior, yet masks this behavior in the rhetoric of self-control and willpower ("Your stomach isn't grumbling, it's applauding").
Keep in mind that this next quote is from a girl who started modeling in ninth grade:
"[Modeling and fashion] was one of the original reasons I started looking at thinspo," she says. "I had an interview with a very, very tough agent in ninth grade and they told me that they would be happy to represent me because of my height and my facial structure. But they wanted me to lose 25 pounds. I wasn't overweight at the time -- I was probably average for my height. It was a big shock for me and that's what really pushed me in the direction [of pro-ana]."
And this is where my jaw dropped...
"They say, 'You know, this is my lifestyle -- I live an extremely low-calorie lifestyle and this is my choice,'" says Pascoe. "And what goes along with that is all sorts of personality traits that they're very proud of. They have an extreme amount of self-control, dedication and willpower. And when they talk about it, they seem like these extreme athletes who run a hundred miles in a shot or do these 24-hour races.”
To be clear, I am not a 24-hour runner, but I do work out nearly every day. On Tuesdays I will sometimes run twice a day 2-fer-Tuesday style... But I fuel appropriately. I take time off when my body needs a rest. Frankly, I am in shock that anyone with a serious eating disorder would compare my running with their illness, because:

Running. Won't. Kill. Me.

Ana Carolina Reston, fashion supermodel who died from her eating disorder, is just the most famous example of an extremely debilitating lifestyle. She was 5'8" and weighed 88 pounds when she died of multiple organ failure due to anorexia.
A modeling photo of the late Ms. Reston.
Image source
At the time, Ms. Reston was still modeling.

So. Eating disorders can kill.

But what about running? Isn't it possible to have a heart attack while running a marathon?
Sure (though the likelihood varies based on underlying conditions). Isn't it bad for your knees? No. But that's another post for another time...

Yes, runners can be slim and dedicated to the point of distraction. (And yes, there are people who have a disordered relationship with working out - similar to and often linked with an eating disorder.) But here's the difference: Not all runners will die from running.

In fact, most will live longer because of running.
(note: you see abs, not ribs, on Shalane)
Image source
On the other hand, eating disorders do - in no uncertain terms - cause serious physical harm and can lead to death.

Having the willpower to complete the last hill repeat in a series is not the same thing as starving yourself for a 50-day anorexic bootcamp, aka the "ABC diet," that limits caloric intake to 500 calories or less per day! (If you don't believe me, skip to page 3 of the Huff Post article).

Glamorizing starvation in terms that reframes it as willpower is just plain wrong.

What are your thoughts/comments on this issue?


  1. The most shocking thing of all is the picture of that model on the runway, and the fact that NOBODY bothered to say or do anything, and that they actually let her go up there looking that way. Not only is it irresponsible because these young girl see these images and revere them, but honestly, I think it makes them accomplices. They stood by and watched this girl kill herself.

    The comparison to running is also ridiculous. People with eating disorders and control issues are drawn to all sorts of activities--some of them run. But most runners are concerned with what their bodies can DO, not with how they look, and most runners, as you say, realize that fueling properly is so important to achieving those goals.

    I seriously believe that until we can change the images young women see every day, we won't be able to do much about this problem. I stopped buying magazines because of it, and I try to encourage others to do so, but people love to look at pretty clothes...on skinny models.

    Sorry for the long comment! I greatly enjoy your blog!

    1. No need to apologize for a long comment. Clearly this issue got me riled up enough that I wrote 700+ workd blog post. And good for you on using purchasing power to voice your opinion. I can't say I've given up magazines entirely (Runner's World!) but I stopped buying the fashion ones a couple of years ago. Even Marie Claire - which at least tried to have a more balanced perspective - has taken a turn for the stereotypical lately. :-/

  2. The thought of these girls seeing an eating dsorder as a life style choice really angers me. From battling anorexia for over 10 years where I am finally managing to win the battle just alarms me that people would want to choose to be this way, make a conscious decision to be emaciated and spur others on to do the same thing is extremely worrying. I know everyone is different, but I honest to god never see it as a lifetsyle choice. I developed anorexia for many reasons and none of them was my choice, yes I guess I did have to make a choice to get well. BUt you don't become anorexic through choice. I had a lot of low self esteem issues, past history of abuse, identity issues, and some of it is also chemical as pretty much all my family has mental health problems.

    alos the comparison to running is barmy, from taking up running it actually helped my eating disorder as I wanted to be able to do it well, and running on empty is no fun at all. I would honestly say running has had such a positive impact on my life. I am the healthiest I have ever been and am well on my eay to being a helathy weight.

    urm sorry for the essay!!! I could go on for hours

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story. Clearly I am writing about this from the perspective of a teacher and a runner. What you wrote shows that I'm not completely batty for thinking the way I do.

      And congratulations to you for making positive changes in your life. I can only imagine what a struggle that has been, but your health is so very important. Reading your story made my day.

  3. and also the media angers me that they try to glamourise anorexia, where it is anything but glamorous. NOt just in terms of dying, but what it does to your body, osteoperosis at age 23!!!, its not just the physical effects but also the mental effects where it steals your childhood/adult life

  4. Ridiculous! Disturbing! And so many other thoughts. It's really messed up that sites like that exist. Even more messed up that any modeling agency would let someone who looks like that model who died get out and walk a runway looking like that. Can't stand it.


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