Pro-ana websites: celebrating and promoting the anorexic body

The Waiting Room / Anorexia Tableau

The Waiting Room / Anorexia Tableau (Photo credit: Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library)

Several sociologists and anthropologists have started commenting on a particular worrying use of the internet – to celebrate and promote anorexia. Websites have appeared directed at people wanting to emulate the bodily practices and appearance of anorexics. They have been referred to as ‘pro-ana‘ (short for anorexic) websites. The term’ Ana’ is sometimes used in the websites as if were the name of a girl or woman, a friend perhaps of the individual who is seeking advice and help in her attempts to render herself thin and adopt ‘Ana’ as her supporter and mentor.

These websites, many of which have hundreds of followers, frequently include images of extremely thin women with conventionally beautiful faces, like models but even thinner. Some are celebrities at their very lowest body weights and looking particularly skeletal. These photos are captioned with approving comments, encouraging viewers to aspire to achieve such emaciation.

There are references on such sites to the ‘eating disorder community’ and the support that such sites offer their members. They are clearly directed at promoting the practices of anorexia nervosa and making members feel as if they are part of a broader community who share the same ideals of body wasting. The sites also refer to ‘thinspiration’, or inspiring others in the aim of ‘getting thin and staying thin’, as one pro-ana site put it. Varieties of diet pill, laxatives, diuretics and ways of stimulating metabolic rates are discussed, as are various workout and dietary regimes, fasting and purging methods and ways to ‘hide anorexia’.

According to one such website the pro-ana ‘creed’ includes such commandments as:  ‘If you aren’t thin you aren’t attractive’, ‘Being thin is more important than being healthy’ and ‘Being thin and not eating are signs of true will power and success’.

The latest issue of the journal Body & Society includes an examination of this phenomenon by Natalie Boero and CJ Pascoe.  As Boero and Pascoe note, such online communities provide a place for people engaging in stigmatised and proscribed body practices such as self-starvation and body wasting to come together and proclaim themselves as rebelling against mainstream negative concepts of anorexics. Participants in these sites position themselves as powerful and challenging of medical dogma, and as experts in the practices of anorexia.

Boero and Pasco focus in particular on the ways in which participants in these sites work to maintain an authentic community of people who are committed to the pro-ana lifestyle. They note that participants are wary of ‘wannarexics’, or people who are attracted to the ‘anorexic lifestyle’ or sense of community offered by these groups, but are viewed as not ‘authentically’ behaving as anorexics. Those who consider themselves ‘real’ pro-anas attempt to maintain group solidarity and keep out the wannarexics, often by being quite aggressive in their posts and positioning themselves as more knowledgeable about anorexia.

This is interesting research, showing how such communities operate to achieve distinctions between ‘authentic’ and ‘fake’ participants. In the case of pro ana sites, given their focus on the body and its proportions, to prove their authenticity, participants are asked to post photos of their bodies, their body weight, body measurements and BMI (body mass index) and food reports of their daily diets. These indicators are used to assess whether they are ‘true’ pro anas.

However what is not discussed in the Boero and Pascoe article is the ways in which some of the most popular pro ana sites are clearly commercial in their orientation. They include advertisements for diet pills and Chinese medicine products aimed at losing weight or sell ‘thinspiration’ manuals with tips on wasting. Some people have obviously spotted a market among the followers of the ‘pro-ana’ philosophy. On their websites they position themselves as pro anas, but then attempt to sell their wares to people accessing their website. It is surely here that the authenticity of pro ana community members needs to be called into question.

Further reading

Natalie Boero and CJ Pascoe (2012) Pro-anorexia communities and online interaction: bringing the pro-ana body online. Body & Society, 18(2), 27–57.

Nick Fox, Katie Ward and Alan O’Rourke (2005) Pro-anorexia, weight-loss drugs and the internet: an ‘anti-recovery’ explanatory model of anorexia. Sociology of Health & Illness, 27(7), 944–71.

Megan Warin (2009) Abject Relations: Everyday Worlds of Anorexia. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.