One of the most shocking and confusing things about analysing pro ana is the communal aspect of user’s interactions. They appear to express a genuine wish to support each other and it is easy to assume that there is a sympathetic aspect to the movement when you imagine a group of vulnerable young girls who find solace in friendships realised online. Many of the accounts I perused last night used language of suicide, suffocation and self harm in relation to ‘ana’. What was interesting was the comment sections of their posts where sympathetic language was used to address other users commenting on their images. Users referred to each other as “lovely”, “babes”, terms I myself use to address close friends. They offered messages of love and support to each other ie. “Remember you are beautiful and I love you hon” which at first glance seem a bit out of place with my own assumptions about the community. I guess I expect these girls to be constantly putting each other down, not affirming that the other is ‘beautiful’ as she is. I have to keep reminding myself that these messages of support aren’t actually genuine lifelines to steer girls on a path toward healthy mental states, they are reinforcements of eating disordered behaviours.
This post is a case in point. I came across the hashtag “anabuddyneeded” on a few popular accounts. It is used either by girls starting out their ‘ana journey’ or by established accounts using their influence to draw potential ‘ana buddies’ to accounts that don’t have as many followers. This one depicts an account by a user with only a handful of followers who is looking to advertise for an ana buddy, a virtual friend who will fast in real time with her for the established target of 4 days. A number of accounts volunteer, as you can see, providing a ‘kik’ username (kik is an IM site popular with young girls where anyone can contact you if they have your username) to extend the discussion privately.
This comment section discusses the user’s fear of their families finding out about their instagram accounts, which all repost imagery of suicide, eating disordered slogans and imagery, tips on fasting and maintaining secrecy. The four different accounts share stories of their visceral fear at discovery by a family member. It’s interesting how brazen and open thinspo accounts are, documenting everything about their lives down to a potential date of suicide, but the language of these comments hints at the fear, anxiety and shame the girls feel at the threat of discovery. They sound vulnerable and its a reminder that the stuff I’m looking at is created by a vulnerable tween and not a monster. I’m forgetting that and perhaps letting my own hatred and fear of thinspo cloud my study of it.
When I was 10 and she was 11, my best friend Age and I spent the day re enacting a Girlfriend Magazine photoshoot frame by frame. We did each other’s makeup and each took turns being model and photographer. Aside from the squeals of embarrassment at seeing these photos again which erupt from my body from a place of abject horror and affection for our former selves, the images are an interesting study of how young females represent themselves through the medium of the image. This was 2004, when front facing cameras had not yet revolutionised self expression in the form of the selfie. The camera these were taken on was a disposable left over from capturing the memories of grade 5 camp, meaning there was little opportunity to take the picture and look back at it before it was developed. This seems to show in the images in how strangely at ease we both look in front of the camera, as the pictures are taken we aren’t constantly checking back at them, fixing our fly aways or wondering how we can stop that slight lazy eye look one does in a selfie when you look at your own face on the screen instead of the camera. But the images are also undeniably strange and unsettling. This is because frame by frame depictions of the actual photoshoot by two normal girls cannot but look like they are trying too hard. Additionally, there is a strangely sexual undertone to a couple of the images, namely the ones depicting us on Age’s bed, lying down looking distant. The adult in me feels a bit of bile in my throat looking at this attempt at hyper sexualising ourselves by creating a carbon copy of a photoshoot we saw in a magazine she was lucky enough to have a subscription to at the time. You can tell I’m much more into the whole thing than Age is, the fact that she doesn’t really want to be there makes the slightly objectifying photo of her looking over her shoulder vulnerably look even worse. She’s posed in an even more extreme sense since she didn’t really want to be the model as much as me. Characteristically, I seem to lack the stiltedness of Age’s discomfort in my photos due to the fact that I was and still am the more precocious child.
What I’m interested in here is the gaze that inflects these photographs. In the context of Age’s driveway, working with the limited materials we had to make magic (i.e.. Her mum’s makeup and avocado face mask) the shots are as faithful to the magazine spread as they could possibly be. Therefore, the strange, hyper sexual gaze that seems to inflect magazine spreads depicting young girls posing docile on beds, eating chocolate, frolicking in fabric, is present in our photos. On the other hand, our photos we taken without an audience in mind. Had we taken these about 4 years later, there is no doubt they would have been published on Myspace and we would have the biases of a specific audience in mind. But our pictures were for our eyes only. This means that the gaze inflected and inflicted on these photos is perhaps our own, a projection of our own normative ideas of what it is to be pretty or beautiful. Finding these photos is also a massive bonus for my instagram artefact as now I have more historical source material to draw from to create my fake posts. I’m excited by this.
My search has subverted my original hypothesis that #fitspirational and #thinspirational were one and the same. It was a surprise how distinct the two categories were, as in general fitspiration seems replete with women who want to be healthy and thinspiration is for those who set out to be unhealthy. It is overwhelmingly positive and a scroll through reveals positive messaging and motivation, alongside the occasional dual thinspo post of a girl whose legs are unnaturally far apart. There really isn’t a lot of diversity, most posts show already fit women, but I guess that’s where the idealised ‘fitspiration’ comes into things. Overwhelmingly it seems like material things are very much indicators of exercise success, a lot of the ‘inspiration’ comes from pretty work out gear looks. I myself today bought a pair or runners and running shorts and felt a wave of fitness potential just wash over me.
After a weekend of trawling through Tumblr and taking a look at where these hashtags take me, frankly I have wept a couple of times. Part of the reason I’m doing this project, something extremely important but something I haven’t yet reflected on, was because I have a 13 year old sister active in this online space. There is quite an age gap between us and I constantly wonder if she goes through the same horrendous but inevitable parts of growing up which I did. It scares me to death the barrage of fresh exposure to messages of skinny perfection she’ll encounter being 13 in 2015. I was 13 in 2007 and it was hard enough without parasitic communities forming online, egging on each other to “purge”. A quick look at the content which comes up for “thinspirational” was enough to make me physically ill. I sort of felt as though this was their strange purpose as many purport to inspire young girls toward bulimic behaviours. I felt like throwing up my lunch at the sophisticated nature of this shared anorexic identity developed through only a few hashtags. There appeared to be this character, “Ana” which the users represented their illness as. An actual mid west high school popular girl who coerced them into being skinny as a condition of belonging to her twisted pack. The personalisation of the illness is also shown in another character, “Mia” , shorthand for bulimia, an equally destructive sidekick to the queen bee. It seemed as though “Ana” and “Mia” offer not only ‘motivation’ to the users but a sense of weird friendship, being the hashtag that unites ED sufferers who turn to the virtual for reinforcement of their behaviours- a fucked up kind of support of their irrational behaviour.
What also strikes me is the sophistication of the users knowledge of getting around content warnings and bans. “Ana” and “Mia” are shorthand for terms that do not receive any results. A search for each girl reveals a page asking you if everything is ok and referring you to NEDA, a body for those suffering with eating disorders. I can’t describe the relief that came over me when I saw this page, I was really struck by how subtle and powerful the content warning was and less terrified of my sister turning on a computer. This is the first time I wept.
But, you can still click through to “ana” content. Oh you know, just if you’re a 50 shades fan and you love the protagonist. A wall of distressing imagery (alongside 50 shades gifs) greets you. One post says “one like=one hours fasting”- urging on pro-ana supporters to partake in her emaciation. I reflect to myself that part of me is kind of glad Tumblr let me look at this stuff for my thesis, but throughout the day I’m haunted by these images. They don’t make me reflect on my size 14 frame in hatred- I’m too old to to let insecurity define my entire approach to life- but I imagine myself at 13 looking at this stuff and know I wouldn’t be able to handle it. When I was in Year 7/8 I abjectly hated myself. It is so strange how normal it felt for me back then, considering the almost decade of life experience this precedes. I would have looked online- had Tumblr existed- and saw my hatred validated by these profoundly mentally ill girls.
And then through all the black and white pictures of emaciated, 14 year old models, sharp collarbones and twig legs, I see this:
Again I felt this wave of relief wash over me and thought again how I had been briefly been transported into a world of utter despair which I was supposed to be viewing as a detached grad researcher. The terms this post uses are extremely interesting. Instead of speaking to the users like a social worker or mental health professional- which may be better but less well received- this post speaks to the audience in their own terms, citing pleasures such as “Red Pandas” and “P I Z Z A”. I broke down when I saw this one due to its sweetness and the very fact that a Tumblr user had very seriously compiled a list of whimsical things to save another from taking their life. Even though the items are cute, the intention of the post is very serious- using Tumblr terms to persuade another user out of hopelessness.