Investigating orthorexia

Critics have looked toward clean eating as an extension of orthorexia nervosa, the little known condition of clinical obsession with eating healthy foods (Williams 2015; Younger 2015). Where anorexia pertains to an anxiety about the quantity of food the sufferer consumes, orthorexia is most accessibly explained as an anxiety over the quality of the food one eats (Larsen 2013; Bratman 2015). Though the condition is not yet recognised by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders index, Dr Stephen Bratman, who first coined the term “orthorexia” writes on his website:

Orthorexia is an emotionally disturbed, self-punishing relationship with food that involves a progressively shrinking universe of foods deemed acceptable. A gradual constriction of many other dimensions of life occurs so that thinking about healthy food becomes the central theme of almost every moment of the day, the sword and shield against every kind of anxiety, and the primary source of self-esteem, value and meaning.

Orthorexia recently received mainstream coverage as a result of an emotional article written by Jordan Younger, a former clean eating blogger now in recovery from the condition. While the popularity of her brand as a wellness blogger grew, Younger recalls her descent into mental illness in her article for Refinery 29.

My issue didn’t fall into the traditional categories of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating. Mine was an obsession with healthy, pure, clean foods from the earth, and a fear of anything that might potentially cause my body harm.

Younger’s piece went viral and the 23 year old is now a very visible advocate for raising awareness of the condition. In recounting her descent into fanaticism toward certain foods, Younger’s account equates unclean foods with potential bodily harm, an interesting rendering of a body at battle with polluting forces which seek to physically degrade the integrity of the body.

Work Cited

  1. Bratman, Steven. “Healthy Eating vs. Orthorexia”., 26 May. 2015. Web. 12 July 2015.
  2. Larsen, Kristine Instefjord. “Similarities and Differences between Eating Disorders and Orthorexia Nervosa.” Diss. Norwegian School of Sports Sciences, 2013. Print.

  3. Williams, Mary Elizabeth. “We’re clean eating our way to new eating disorders.” Salon, 31 Jan. 2015. Web. 12 July 2015.

  4. Younger, Jordan. “My life with Orthorexia.” Refinery 29, 11 May. 2015. Web. 12 July 2015.

The raw deal: Paleo and primitive ritual

As a method of “clean eating” the paleo diet follows through on the movement’s re-evaluation of the term “clean” as a metaphorical state, as we can imagine the foods eaten by primitive man would not have fitted conventional notions of hygiene. Instead, the prioritisation of certain foods over others is done based on a social agenda.

The paleo diet’s prioritisation of raw food over cooked food is shared by the primitive tribes of Douglas’s account. Citing an un named review of Indian Sociology, Douglas argues for some tribes, the digestion of food begins at the moment of its cooking, the point at which absorption of food by the body actually begins (Purity and Danger 127).

Food preparation involves a collective pre digesting of food by the maker, and as a result the food itself is seen to absorb the nature of the maker. So one cannot eat food prepared by someone else without absorbing the latter’s qualities which manifest in food at the moment it is cooked. If the maker’s nature is sinister, this is the point at which the pollution of food occurs.

Note here it is a moral, not hygienic instance of pollution.

In the case of the paleo diet, which rejects clinical notions that “raw” foods are often seen to be pathologically harmful (ie. Salmonella poisoning), there appears to be a similar anxiety over food becoming manifestly “unclean” at the moment of cooking. Raw foods are symbolic beacons of health and well being, where cooked foods, though in no way condemned, fail to dominate the clean eating hashtag’s visual representation as extensively.


Work Cited

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger : An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge Classics ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Clean eating: an aesthetically pleasing can of worms

Clean eating is a wellness phenomenon that has taken over dashboards everywhere. To eat clean has become the raison detre for many young females, if their social media activity is anything to go by. By what are the implications for a population of young women striving toward a state of cleanliness, synonymous with both internal and external purity? Masked by the empowered tone of postings by amateurs and wellness bloggers alike is an excessive anxiety toward the disorder emblematic in foods which fail to meet new criterions of cleanliness.

Mary Douglas famously argues that our visceral fear of dirt stems not from an anxiety over its lack of hygiene, but the context of its placement in a social system. For example, dirt is tolerated in contexts where it is expected, (ie. the garden bed) however once dirt transgresses out of this expected position this is the moment where discomfort occurs. Funnily enough, there is nothing about dirt itself that is inherently “dirty”, rather it is whether or not it follows the social doctrines of its placement.

To ramble now on clean eating, there is nothing to suggest the purpose of clean eating involves striving to consume foods that are necessarily “hygienic” – the conventional meaning of the word “clean”. Clean eating instead involves a re evaluation of the meaning of the term to suit a more metaphorical pursuit of wholesomeness which would be difficult to explain to someone who naturally took on the traditional, verbatim definition of “clean”. I believe there is some interesting discourse work at play here by the community that recalls Douglas’s re-evaluation of the cultural relativity of dirt. Foods contained within the clean eating diet are not prioritised due to their hygienic status but for the fact that they follow certain social rules.

The first of these is that these foods are of a certain nutritional value, verified by a number of different sources. I am not in a  position to question the diet’s nutritional content, however I would like to point out how the definition of “clean” has been refigured as something that fits into accepted social codes of nutrition and health. I speculate that the other of these is the aesthetic value of certain foods contained within the clean eating diet. It is difficult to explain the sum of things making up the clean eating aesthetic but a few common motifs include wholesome boards and bowls containing brightly coloured foods garnished by attractive condiments, smoothies presented in fashionable milk bottles, smiling attractive girls in work out gear holding vegetables and so on. What I edge toward is that for foods to be considered “clean” they also must follow certain aesthetic as well as nutritional rules to truly be validated within the social system.

Ana vs Mia: speculating

This one is a bit of a lassoing of ideas, bear with me as I try to explain pro-ana’s exclusion of the “mia” via menstrual blood. Not a post for the closed of mind. 

A cursory scroll through the thinspiration hashtag feed reveals the actual definition of the eating disordered experience more broadly a matter of internal contest in pro-ana. Alongside the figure of “Ana”, “Mia” also features as a personification of an eating disorder, namely the bulimic condition. However the relationship between “Ana” and “Mia” is seen to be a hostile one, with “Mias” (users purporting to be bulimic) often dealt with in languages of exclusion within pro-ana. Bulimia is seen as a last resort, something seized upon in the event of a binge and as such associated with relapse, guilt and indulgence.

To return to dominant discourse work performed in thinspiration, I locate a fear of the abject position in the pro-ana movement’s excessive anxiety toward those sitting on the borderline of ‘legitimate’ eating disorder suffering. The pro-ana movement unites in the fight against disorder by defining the bulimic condition as taboo in excluding “mias” (bulimics) in virtual spaces where “ana represents an ED ideal” (Giles 468).

The movement under attack has little tolerance for the ambiguity and anomaly present in the taboo bulimic state, which is assumed to be an in between disorder taken up by those unequal to the task of total self starvation. The community perceives the “mia” with a sense of abject disgust at their traversal of carefully crafted boundaries and definitions of the eating disordered experience, which are literally inscribed in manifesto form across many sites.  Positioned in structuralist terms, pro-ana is an inherently untidy system whose boundaries are vulnerable at best, and this is what necessitates a response akin to Douglas’s formulation of taboo as “a spontaneous coding practice which sets up a vocabulary of spatial limits and physical and verbal signals to hedge around vulnerable relations” (Purity and Danger xiii).

We may speculate that the abject disgust at the “mia” condition stems from a fear of the marginal state he or she inhabits, as someone hovering at the borders of the accepted ED experience. The bulimic condition itself is often less physically inscribed upon the body, as sufferers can maintain a normal body shape while practicing regular binges and purges. Thus, the bulimic body seems to oscillate between notions of health and unhealth, suffering and not suffering, starving and not starving. To follow Douglas’s line of argument, it would be the “mia”s transgression of a fixed state which is more offensive than their condition alone. Within pro-ana the mia is treated almost as a Lele tribeswoman, who while pregnant, must take care not to upset the cycles of nature as a vessel for a foetus which is alive and not alive. Like the pregnant mother, the mia is feared and excluded due to the marginal state it inhabits or provides a bodily vessel for. The same comparison may be drawn between the mia and even the visceral fear many cultures within Douglas’s study appear to show at the concept of menstrual blood. Douglas uses the example of Maori tribes who fear menstrual blood because “if it had not flowed it would have become a person, so it has the impossible status of a dead person that has never lived” (93). The marginal status of menstrual blood is what causes disgust for the Maoris, not the substance itself and similarly the in between condition of the “mia” who belongs to both sides of the eating disorder community, as “ana” in her starvation and compulsive eater in her binges, is perhaps what causes discomfort.

Work cited

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger : An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978. Print.

Giles, David. “Constructing Identities in Cyberspace: The Case of Eating Disorders.” British Journal of Social Psychology 45.3 (2006): 463-77. Print

Pro-ana: A movement under attack

Eliza Burke defines thinspiration as a “range of photographs of slender, sometimes clinically anorexic women and celebrities used to inspire starvation” (63). Thinspiration involves the strategic decontextualisation of imagery contained in various media artefacts which do not, at the surface, purport to encourage eating disordered behaviour. The hashtag commonly emerges in content emanating from the pro-anorexia community, an online group who encourage and reinforce practices of eating disordered behaviours.

In 2015, pro-ana are a movement under constant attack by exterior forces such as ‘haters’ and ‘censors’ who seek to degrade and undermine the movement out of a sense of disgust at the discourse work performed in thinspiration. In April, the French Parliament released a law which criminalises thinspiration content, stating those found guilty of encouraging “excessive thinness” by promoting “prolonged dietary restrictions” will face up to a year in prison and a 10,000 Euro ($10,880 AUD) fine. Additionally, the platforms most commonly used by the group, Instagram and Tumblr now present lengthy content advisory warnings when certain at risk search terms are entered. Thinspiration is classed as one of these, and even other incarnations of the word designed to get around the content warnings such as “thinspoooo” or “thinsparation” return the same warning.

Unlike the friendly tone of many wellness blogs emerging in fitspiration and clean eating, thinspiration presents us with an almost militant textual language. Tumblr blogs and Instagram accounts contain manifestos on the user’s subjective and collective cause in conveying thinspiration to the world. As a movement which attempts to divert discourse about anorexia away from clinical interpretations, the pro-ana community appear constantly mobilised in the battle for representation. Account descriptions contain mission statements, commandments, odes and prayers written to the goddess “ana”; an omnipotent frenemy who inflects their lives with bodily suffering and weight loss rewards.

The user appears in constant anxiety over affirming and reaffirming what the “ana” experience is and what it isn’t but, despite its tone of collective militance, the community’s definition of this does not appear to be uniform.

Some sites take up the “ana” cause with a note of liberation; anorexia is not a disease, but a life style choice taken up by those equal to the Herculean task of self starvation. Here there is a worship of mind over body, an eschewing of corporeal needs and wants in order to gain an affinity with an alternative higher power, ana. 

In other blogs eating disorders are acknowledged as a clinical disease, but one that is revelled in due to the subversive status of being “ana”. While seeming to reject clinical ideas of the healthy body, these blogs still take up these as the norm and revel in the fact that they are not “normal”, rather than looking toward re-evaluating the “ana” experience as in the previous example. 

The third category of blogs heavily involve tones of self hatred. Where in the previous two examples, “ana” is a body state that is seen as obtainable if one follows the right rules, this area of the community appear to use Tumblr and Instagram to represent their distress at the impossibility of this “thin ideal”. However this is not done in an empowering fashion, akin to recent trends in “fatspiration” which sees curvy females posting images of themselves in celebration. Here, users express their frustration and distress at their failings, binges and doubts about the process of being “ana” and use thinspiration as an extension of their self hatred ie. “I will never be her”. This area of the community are perhaps the most concerning, however there appears to be more genuine offerings of support from other users within this section in ways that would be conventionally acknowledged as healthy.

Work Cited

Burke, Eliza. “Pro-Anorexia and the Internet: A Tangled Web of Representation and (Dis) Embodiment.” Counselling, Psychotherapy, and Health 5.1 (2009): 60-81. Print.

A Lydia moment: Day and Keys my new qweens

  • Day, Katy, and Tammy Keys. “Starving in Cyberspace: A Discourse Analysis of Pro-Eating-Disorder Websites.” Journal of Gender Studies 17.1: 1-15. Print.

Have had a Lydia Schiavello “wow” moment throughout this article, a fantastic discourse analysis of pro-ana. It speaks my language in terms of content but also in the method of analysis they use, which looks at the discursive work being performed by agents of the pro-ana movement. This idea of subjects of analysis being the ones performing the discursive work, not the researcher is something I should have wrapped my head around ages ago. It is the users I’m studying who are also negotiating through meaning, not just little old me.

So, it’s a

Poststructuralist style of discourse analysis informed by a feminist perspective on the material downloaded from pro-eating-disorder websites. (Day and Keys, 1)

So mine might be a

Digital Anthropological style of discourse analysis informed by Mary Douglas’s notion of Purity and Danger which investigates material contained within the thinspiration, fitspiration and clean eating hashtag feeds. (Clark, …)

I guess that just highlights how obscure my topic is but in Honours level obscurity in focus is manageable.

The article is a beautiful best of of all the people I’ve been reading and it was extremely useful in illustrating how much dissent there is in the field about the way participants in pro-ana are represented in mostly feminist critiques.

Those who self-starve are presented as both ‘victims’ of culturally prescribed roles and expectations and also ‘rebels’ who are fighting and resisting these in an effort to negotiate a satisfactory feminine identity. (Day and Keys, 3)

So on the one hand you have influential writers such as Susie Orbach and Susan Bordo (qweens) who argue eating disorders can be read as body management ideals inscribed in literal form on women’s bodies, social pressures toward obtaining beauty ideals taken to their extreme. And on the other hand you have more recent critiques (Susie and Susan write in a pre-internet era) which see pro-ana as a movement trying to wrest power from dominant representations of eating disorders as pathological, mental illness by reshaping themselves as a group who see “ana” as an empowering “lifestyle choice”. The language of the latter sites and posts is extremely militant, a typical site contains its beliefs in manifesto form and has commandments to live by. There is also a hero worship of the figures of “Ana” and “mia” who seem to be both toxic friends and loving saviours. In short, modern discourse in pro-ana tries to move representations of eating disorders away from beliefs in suffering, disease and victimhood.

It’s not, “a mental illness made me like this” (ala clinical discourse), “society made me like this” (ala Bordo and Orbach) but “I made me like this”.

The writers mention the current trend toward analysing the latter statement through a Foucauldian lens, which I find fantastically interesting but it’s a bit too late in my research life this year to be summoning upon a different theorist to Mary D to explain things.

A bit more on their method:

Following the ethical guidelines produced by the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR 2002), we decided to use public webpages and chat exchanges in publicly accessible forums only, avoiding ‘lock and key’ sites where greater privacy is assumed. In addition, steps were taken to ensure that nobody would be identifiable from the analysis, such as the removal of all names (even obvious pseudonyms) and any other information that may lead to personal identification. Further, no attempts were made to deceive those visiting the sites by, for example, TK ‘posing’ as a self-starver or someone seeking advice on weight loss. Rather, a method of ‘lurking’ was adopted (reading the messages without taking part). (Day and Keys, 6)

A big YASSSS QWEEN section. I’ll try and mirror their approach to selecting the data ethically. I’ve expunged the desire I have to interact with this community in first semester (see here) and am almost a global expert on the ethical minefield that is engaging with this community through deceptive methods. This passage made me blush guiltily but also rub my paws together gleefully.

Check this INCRED discussion of analysing things discursively instead of the embodied subjective experience of participants.

Unlike some feminist poststructuralist work in this area, we did not make use of psychoanalytic theory, such as the ideas of Lacan (e.g. Malson 1998). Rather, our analysis was largely conducted within a Foucauldian framework, thus concentrating upon the production of knowledge and the constitution of subjectivity without making recourse to unconscious processes. However, nor were we working with the idea that there is nothing beyond the text [an assertion that has been attributed to Derrida (1976)]. For example, although we agree with those such as MacSween (1993) that the body is inscribed with cultural meanings and that any bodily or physical experience is necessarily always mediated by social processes and discourses, we also regard the bodies described in the data gathered (e.g. as being subjected to rigorous and often punitive regimes) as having a physical reality. However, these bodies are ones that are not directly knowable outside of the discursive realm (Malson 1998). (Day and Keys, 6 emphasis mine)

They are careful to acknowledge that while the physical, offline experience of viewing pro-ana certainly exists and is an area of interest, they are not able to make claims about it in their own study.

I almost wrote the same paragraph last week.

Social media masterclass // reflection

Today I attended a fantastic masterclass by the DERC research group and Young and Well. It is amazing to be at an academic level where you get to go along to free and highly relevant seminars with pastries and coffee included. As a novice researcher, that is such a biggie.

It was almost like seeing Beyonce at priceline and getting a photo with her. Seeing your research idols of the moment in the one place and being able to actually access their stupendous mental capacity was fantastic.

Predictably I found this to be the case with Crystal Abidin, who I’ve talked about before.

She spoke the language current to my research soul.

Some stuff I wrote down besides YAAASSS QWWEEEN repeatedly.

  • Separate analysis by platform, into physical or digital not online and offline. NOT online and offline. Online and offline communication intermesh in real life, for instance some bloggers in Crystal’s study felt more comfortable communicating via technology even in her physical presence. It is important to speak about contexts as platforms, so physical platform is reaching out and touching communication and digital is done in a virtual space.
  • The coolest thing ever: as part of her ethnography Crystal became an intern/PA to some of these famous Singaporean bloggers. I asked her to expand on how she teed that up and what she learned and she spoke about ironing clothing non stop for two weeks and feeling like the mundane activity could never be beneficial to her PHD. But actually it was as she saw the evolution of the clothes sponsors would send the blogger to wear in terms of garment type and label. She would also edit their instagram posts for grammatical errors, which I just found awesome.
  • She found most of the interesting conversations she had with the women in her study took place in bathrooms, a secret place where women can be honest with eachother. Perhaps in the bar after a few bevs and a lippie touch up the best ethnography can be conducted?
  • The subjects in her study became like friends to her, texting her at the end of a bad night etc. this put her in a really tricky spot as a researcher.
  • There was a very ambiguous transference of intimacy from the digital into the physical world. Bloggers she had interacted with online who had sent her a series of smiley faces, I love yous and xxx’s did not know how to behave with her in a physical environment once they met in the flesh. Coooool.
  • She talked lots about knowing the communicative norms of the environment you are studying, so being like a translator or knowing the shorthand your group chooses to communicate with. Getting to know what is the most comfortable way for the group to communicate so you can duplicate this…………………………………………. to this I asked what if the language/behaviours of a community are extremely poisonous and negative? Does adapting these to gain trust/access perpetuate that? What kind of ethics conundrums does that stir up? To which Crystal later said to look up the work of Paul Byron at UNSW who works with teens to gain insight into attitudes toward sexual health. Byron says that it isn’t always best for a researcher to follow the ethical rules as sometimes people respond better to their own language. I don’t know about this… but I need to look up Byron’s work and see what kind of rationale he gives for it. I get what Crystal said about using language that is a departure from institutional/clinical forms of communication…..