Category: Reflective Portfolio

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…..


These are my people! // reading reflection

I’ll be missing my last Nonfiction lab this week to head to a research masterclass run by DERC and Young and Well. One of the sessions will be run by Crystal Abidin, a visiting research fellow at RMIT currently under the mentorship of  Associate Professor Heather Horst (whose work I have also written about here).

I’m very excited about this, especially after reading Abidin’s work on Singaporean blogshops this morning. The paper discusses Abidin’s research practice while looking into the online and offline behaviours of an interesting community. What pricks up my ears is what she says about the way she was able to achieve insight:

In order to access and be socialised into the blog community, I had to ‘live’ within their shared social space and ‘perform’ as they would. This included adopting communication and behavioral norms just as any anthropologist entering a physical field site would. Conversations with readers and customers during my pre-field preparation informed my ‘performance’ as a participating ‘insider’. These included a repertoire of cyber lingo and localised blogosphere jargon, as well as an extensive background knowledge and social context of the local commercial blog scene. (8)

Through this precursor, I too have adopted behaviours I’ve observed as normative in the community I’m studying- particularly in relation to hashtag use, emoji selection and text posts. I love the idea of entering into a ‘physical site’ and adopting the behaviours of a tribe which seem foreign at first. My thesis uses Mary Douglas’s anthropological notion of Purity and Danger to interrogate the hashtags thinspiration, fitspiration and clean eating. Douglas’s theory is the result of many years fieldwork in primitive tribes of the Belgian Congo circa the 50s and 60s. I like to imagine myself doing similar sort of fieldwork with foreign groups of the future- teenage girls.

Abidin actually did create a Facebook presence to interact with her chosen community as part of her dissertation.

Since commercial bloggers convey their personas and interact with others through social media accounts such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Formspring, and Foursquare, these platforms become the ‘objects’ through which they ‘think with’ and exist in their digital community. In a bid to embed myself into the commercial blog community, I set up a new Facebook account to interact with fellow community members and a blog to host the more intimate insights into my life. On this Facebook account, I ‘added’ informants as ‘friends’ and subscribed to their Fan Pages for live feeds. I shaped the blog as a chronicle of my research journey and experiences as a graduate student so that informants could keep up-to-date with the progress of my research and keep in touch through a medium less formal than email correspondence. (9)

It’s always exciting to find someone who speaks your language! Looking forward to meeting her at the masterclass.

Work cited

Abidin, Crystal. “‘Cya IRL’: Researching digital communities online and offline.” Limina Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies (2013): 1-17. Print.

Constructing selves online // reading reflection

I love reading danah boyd (lower case intentional) because her focus is on debunking ideas of technology radically reshaping the human experience. Like Horst and Miller she argues that people remain the same, the tools the have to perform and represent identity are just different.

I recalled speaking to a teen named Stan whom I’d met in Iowa three years earlier. He had told me to stop looking for differences. “You’d actually be surprised how little things change. I’m guessing a lot of the drama is still the same, it’s just the format is a little different. It’s just changing the font and changing the background color really.” He made references to technology to remind me that technology wasn’t changing anything important. (3)

If I have learned one thing from my research, it’s this: social media services like Facebook and Twitter are providing teens with new opportunities to participate in public life, and this, more than anything else, is what concerns many anxious adults (10)

This is really relevant to my precursor for the same reasons I wrote about in my Horst and Miller reflection. I came at this project with a sense of alarmist horror at the radically changed ways young girls were interacting on digital spaces but have now arrived at a conclusion that the behaviours are not anything new, however the tools to share them are.

I also quite like boyd’s discussion of identity formation in avatars.

Choosing and designing an avatar is a central part of participation in immersive games and virtual worlds, but youth approach this practice in extraordinarily varied ways. Some teens purposefully construct their avatars in ways that they feel reflect their physical bodies; other teens choose characters based on skills or aesthetics. For some teens, being “in world” is discrete from their school environment, whereas others game with classmates. It may seem that the roleplaying elements of these environments imply a significant separation between the virtual and the real; however, these often get blurred in fantasy game worlds as well. 42

Her thoughts remind me alot of Caroline Humphrey’s discussion of avatar use in Russian chat rooms of all places.

[Avatars] should convey the inner state of the person, his soul, one might say, or the condition of his soul . Ordinary life is a suppression of the true inner being of a person, which lies deep in the soul and which is both profound and expressive.

(Miller 150, citing Humphrey 2009 40-41)

A nice little bridge between two readings I found marvellous. I’m thinking about my own construction of an avatar and what kind of choices I have made for her. I think the honesty of the Tumblr posts are an example of using an avatar to convey the condition of one’s soul, and the use of the ensuing instagram pictures is also quite revealing of my inner thoughts at the time. I think also though, avatars are often used as consolation for something, compensation for that which is missing in inner life.

Works cited

boyd, danah. It’s Complicated : The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Yale University Press, 2014. Print. (lower case on purpose for surname)

Humphrey, Caroline. “The Mask and the Face: Imagination and Social Life in Russian Chat Rooms and Beyond.” Ethnos 74.1 (2009): 31-50. Print.

Miller, Daniel.  “Social Networking Sites”. Digital Anthropology. Ed. Heather Horst and Daniel Miller. English ed. London: Berg, 2012. 150. Print.

Digital Anthropology and what makes us human these days // reading reflection

In recent years, critics of Anthropology have claimed it is a dying practice, such is the lightning speed trajectory of cultural change afforded by an expanded array of digital cultural artefacts for humans to perform and represent identity. However, Horst and Miller contend the faster cultural change happens, “the more relevant anthropological perspectives become because there is absolutely no sign that changes in technology are outstripping the human capacity to regard things as normative” (108). They suggest that unlike other disciplines, anthropology is “well equipped to immerse itself in the process by which digital culture becomes normative culture, and to understand what it tells us about being human” (108). Far from being a threat to the well established, research methodology that is Antropology, “the lesson of the digital is that, far from making us obsolete, the story that is anthropology has barely begun”(“Normativity and the Principle of Materiality” 108).

Horst and Miller later edited Digital Anthropology, a ground breaking manifesto taking anthropological practices into the digital age. The text shows an apparent wish to legitimise Anthropology as modern method of research which isn’t going away too soon, with the chops to be responsive to speedy trajectories of social change. Far from being a threat to authentic social relations, the digital is seen as a powerful way of   “reflecting upon what it means to be human, the ultimate task of the anthropology discipline” (Digital Anthropology 3).

Horst and Miller conclude:

Being human is a cultural and normative concept. We may employ technologies to shape our conceptualisation of what it means to be human, but it is our definition of being human that mediates what the technology is, not the other way around. (“Normativity and the Principle of Materiality” 108)

In light of these thoughts, I guess this precursor investigates the way young women use digital artefacts such as Instagram and Tumblr to represent the human experience. The artefacts are new, but the process behind their use is very much the same as the way human’s have behaved and interacted for centuries. This is why something I wrote in 2003 can be repackaged in a new way, yet still retain the emotion behind its original writing.

Works cited

Horst, Heather, and Daniel Miller. “Normativity and the Principle of Materiality: A View from Digital Anthropology.” Media International Australia 145 (2012): 103-11. Print.

Horst, Heather, and Daniel Miller. “The Digital and The Human.” Digital Anthropology. Ed. Heather Horst and Daniel Miller. English ed. London: Berg, 2012. 3-13. Print.

Belle Gibson and credibility in clean eating

Had an interesting thought today while thinking about paleo in relation to clean eating (which I’ll explore in my thesis). Belle Gibson was recently exposed as a fraud having faked terminal cancer to build a reputation as a health guru and make tonnes of money at the expense of people’s hopes and dreams of getting better. It’s pretty obvious I find her actions personally abhorrent. I was thinking though how easily credibility is gained inside social networks by people who have none whatsoever, simply because they are in possession of savvy knowledge of the right hashtags and posts.

When I’m looking at who the influencers are in the wellness blogging field, people are often credible for aesthetic reasons ie. they are in possession of washboard abs, defined collarbones, bikram yoga membership in exchange for publicity and tanned skin. These qualities and not a degree or professional experience in the field are what count as credibility these days.

Perhaps this reveals something about why people are engaging with my own fake online presence?