In Here Comes Everybody Clay Shirky demonstrates the ways in which social media enables groups to form without social approval. This is an extremely pertinent text for a study of pro-ana, which sees girls whose eating disordered behaviours are rejected by society as dangerously unhealthy, finding identity and belonging in relationships with each other online. Pro-ana has a formidable online presence, with established blogs and forums alongside very specific manifestos and mission statements on what it is to be ‘ana’/’mia’ etc.
Some choice quotes
Something is different, it is easier for groups to form without social approval. 205
The enormous visibility and searchability of social life means that the ability for the like-minded to locate one another, and to assemble and cooperate with one another, now exists independently of social approval or disapproval. The gathering of Pro-Ana girls isn’t a side effect of our social tools, it’s an effect of those tools. 207
The logic of self help is affirmational- a small group bands together to defend its values against internal and external challenges…. The basic mechanism of mutual support remains the same. 207
Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody : The Power of Organizing without Organizations. New York: Penguin Press, 2008. Print.
Abjection is important to my thesis and doubly important to narrating my horror at some of the stuff I’m seeing on thinspo sites.
Kristeva’s theory uses Freudian psychoanalysis to define the abject as a concept excluded from the accepted cultural order, hovering at the borders of the subject’s existence and threatening to loosen its claim as the dominant subject. To Kristeva, the abject manifests itself in “what does not respect borders, positions, rules: the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (14), an example being the sight of a corpse, a powerful symbol of the abject as something mediating between the borders of life and death. Interestingly for my own study of eating disordered behaviour, Kristeva identifies the first form of abjection as that of “oral disgust”: “Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection” (11). Douglas’s original work contends that a fear of dirt has less to do with a wariness of hygiene than the avoidance of the symbolic disorder exemplified in certain types of food, and similarly Kristeva denies food loathing has any basis in a wariness of hygiene, “it is not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order” (11).
Debra Ferreday’s work places the feeling of abjection in the mind of the concerned outsider, encountering pro-Anorexia blogs with a feeling of instant anger and revulsion. Like the Kristevan revulsion at the corpse, Ferreday narrates the onlooker’s “moment of disgust…. as the defining moment in which the boundaries of the ‘healthy’ body are threatened by an encounter with the anorexic body” (“Unspeakable Bodies” 291). As imagery of ‘thinspiration’ causes the onlooker to retch, pro-Anorexia content “brings about a final ironic assault of the boundary between the anorexic and the healthy subject in which the onlooker is forced into a parodic repetition of anorexic praxis” (291). By producing a very visceral sensation of revulsion, the anorexic body breaks down the distinction between the healthy subject and the abject other and it is this moment of anger and panic that fuels the aggressive desire to delete sites of this nature.
Ferreday, Debra. “Haunted Bodies: Visual Cultures of Anorexia.” Borderlands E-Journal: New Spaces in the Humanities 10.2 (2011): 1-22. Print.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror : An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. Print.
Here is my crude rendering of my precursor 2. On the left I was asked to draw my project and I thought the best way to do so was drawing the photo of myself that inspired this whole second half (you can see it in the background of my blog). The drawing induces abject horror at its terribleness but also visually represents the personal side of my work I think. I’m just saying it’s interesting that that is the visual symbol I went with being given a few minutes to render it. On the right are the decisions I’ve made in approaching the second half of my precursor program. They reflect loads of stuff that has happened outside of my lab and this artefact like:
- arriving at a greater understanding of and passion for what I’m researching this year
- knowing how and why I got to that stage
- talking to people
- discovering research methods I didn’t know existed
I’m then asked to write what these have in common with my revamped artefact at the general concern and fascination remains the same: the way young women represent themselves through the image.
This guy liked my photo today, his name is Stelios and he is supposedly a grandfather from what looks like Cyprus. I followed him back, my name is Holly and I’m 14 and living in melbourne. I’m not sure which is creepier.
Today an anorexia recovery blog started following me. I’m now hyper aware of the ethical implications of my contributing to a movement promoting mental illness. As I learn more and more about the everyday online interactions between followers of certain hashtags I edge closer to doing something that really does need ethics clearances. I am a 21 year old female posing as a 14 year old girl, I’ve told myself that this is ok as that 14 year old girl is still actually me but I’m feeling a bit icky this morning about the different people who have encountered this online construction. Chxse_happy is a 16 year old recovering anorexic from the US (apparently). The purpose of his instagram lies in promoting mental and physical health, his feed is all positive, lovely screenshots of inspirational quotes. He picks his shots well, the girls seem to like the JK Rowling ones the most. I imagine Chase came across one of my photos on a thinspiration feed and clicked through to my account. He followed me in the hope that I would check him out I assume, as is the natural curiosity of anyone with a public instagram account who is not Kim Kardashian. Someone thought I was actually an at risk teen, I had totally deceived them in a sense worse than cat fishing. I feel compelled to message Chase and let him know the truth behind my project but interacting with other users on that level is out of hand. I need to reassess the boundaries of this project. Is it ok if the person I’m posing as is really me? And the posts I’m writing are based on real moments from my diaries? What are the limits of my interactions with other instagramers? As voyeur? Contributor?
My account means I am granted access to look at fascinating conversations and interactions in the comments sections of certain posts (I’ve reflected on these before) but I’ve got to take on a role as ethnographer, someone who doesn’t solicit reactions out of their interview subjects but merely observes them in their native environments. In his contribution to Digital Anthropology, Boegstroff attacks notions of ethnography as a practice of elicitation methods. He writes there is a common confusion between qualitative research methods such as interviews and surveys and actually doing ethnography. Ethnography contains, “kinds if data obtainable from participant observation that could not be acquired by interviews or other elicitation methods” (Digital Anthropology 46). Elicitation which is removed from participant observation can lead researchers to confuse representation with reality, “and thereby mistakenly equate culture with rules, scripts and norms rather than embodied practices” (Digital Anthropology 55). When ethnographers ask interview questions, they gain from their subjects representations of social practice. These are certainly, “social facts and have cultural effects…. But they cannot be conflated with culture as a whole” (55). In this way, ethnography is more sound when it involves the observation of naturally recurring behaviours than milking these out of the subject who will enact a process of representation. This process may inhibit real cultural understanding of the organic behaviours of the subject.
In a word, step off Holly.
Using the right hashtags, this post (derived from the Age photoshoot) received over 15 likes. It was interesting and a little disturbing that my account has less than 5 followers but 15 strangers were still able to view and like this post. The anxieties surrounding exposing my younger self on the internet have re emerged after taking a look at the accounts of a few likers, one being a grandfather from Cyprus….. This post shows the power and influence of using the right hashtags, generic ones such as ‘selfie’ ‘girl’ seem to draw a lot of people to me. It’s also interesting that I find myself immersed in this momentary excitement at getting likes on my photo. Part of it is a strange satisfaction in the fact that my project’s function as a piece of ethnographic deception is working. But it also seems to be myself getting caught up in the bizarre, quite visceral validation that comes with strangers seeing an image of (an incarnation of) myself and liking it. I come from a professional PR background also, where the pursuit of followers and likes on owned social media channels is akin to buried treasure, so this may also be coming into it. I’m disgusting myself, but reflections on this disgust are the most interesting part of all this.
This interaction follows a post I did about Evan Peters, an actor most famous for his appearance as Tate in American Horror Story, Murder House. His celebrity is affirmed in a lot of pro ana accounts who seem to worship him and discuss his character in highly sexualised terms ie. Comments abound of fantasies of the character taking their virginity for example. This worship is disturbing, as Tate in AHS is a mass murderer and rapist. His character is a social outcast with a famous often reposted mantra “normal people scare me”, which seems to be where the pro ana audience relate to him most. When he undertakes his attack on the school, he paints his face like a skeleton which seems to represent in striking visual terms his outcast status, or the fact he is already dead inside. This seems to be a particularly relatable image for many pro ana accounts, who seem to use the still from the show of him in this makeup as a representation of the secret side of their anorexia. As an indicator of how active the hero worship of Peters is, I reposted an image of him and was immediately contacted by a fan site of his asking for ‘2 likes for 2 likes’.
This one was a really useful exercise in thinking ‘through’ a preposition. I’m a big fan of using concepts as vehicles through which we can move toward something else. Note that I used about 2 or 3 prepositions there myself! I chose: toward, since and within as you can see on my devil scratchings above.
It is hitting home to me how cool it is that even though I’m doing a thesis I still am getting the opportunity to do some exegetical work in thinking through an artefact I have created. Where in thesis writing we usually think through or within a certain concept or framework we ourselves didn’t create but actively chose, doing a project is centring our claims on something we ourselves have done. I think this is attractive to me as a person writing a thesis in contribution to a research area with a fairly long and momentous tradition. I get to have a bit of fun now in an act of pure creation!
When I first began this project, I feel it was very much an act of self help. I started by putting myself at the centre of the project so I could remove it later, a choice which I explored a lot in my first precursor. Additionally I felt a personal connection was behind my idea for the project, having a little sister active in an environment where she may be hypothetically exposed to this imagery, popular with girls her age. It was out of a sense of strange protectiveness that I embarked on a process of digitising my younger self.
I was grappling with a research question which I didn’t know why I wanted to spend a year of my life researching. What I wasn’t doing was grappling with an eating disorder. Much literary discussion of eating disordered behaviours through the lens of cultural theory is written by women who have been through these illnesses. Probyn is an example of a famous theorist who has made a large contribution to our understanding of the social meanings behind anorexia, who states explicitly she is a surviver of the illness and embeds it into her discussion of the physical experience of the disorder. I have not ever experienced eating disordered behaviours in my life yet I have spent a lot of my life being absolutely fascinated by them. Conducting the kind of micro ethnographic study I have done through my observation of the interactions between followers of pro ana in this precursor I believe is further validation of this morbid fascination I have always held.
Like any rational person, I view lots of this stuff with abject revulsion. That’s one of the things doing this precursor project in both its incarnations has really affirmed for me. This has been an important realisation for me as it has made me reassess the gaze I’m placing upon these images. I’m not sure how I can remain objective in my research if I am still imposing my own personal feelings of anger and revulsion at these images. I don’t think I ever can remove these feelings from my process of viewing thinspiration but what I’ve realised along the way is in no way can I make conclusions at this level of study about the actual physical, offline process of the user who views these images. I simply can’t. It’s easier to remain a bit objective once I figured out the research method I’m using is discourse analysis, looking at the language used by contributors to thinspiration and making claims as to how this is reflective of social values. My approach means I am able to reassess the gaze I’m placing on these images as now I evaluate them as symbols/signs of society reproduced in small on a social media platform. I cannot claim they are anything else in one year of study.