Adrienne Rennie calls for a need to engage with people with lived experience of eating disorders in order to improve support services.
For me, although I had friends, I always felt like an outsider. I was living with intensely low-self-esteem, terrible anxiety, and enduring feelings of failure – a real loss of control within life. There couldn’t be any way anyone was feeling the same way, I thought. Until Pro-Ana gave me a sense of belonging.
Pro-Ana, or pro-Anorexia, focuses on the promotion of disordered eating. The content is usually created by people with eating disorders and provides ‘tips and tricks’ on how to maintain your eating disorder. Now, you might be thinking how can someone be sucked into these sites? But what people don’t see are the communities formed within Pro-Ana. These communities comprise of vulnerable people who are, perhaps, the only stable constant in each other’s lives. And the deeper you fall, the harder it is to find a way out and see anyone in the real world as a true friend.
The more involved you become, the more you strive to belong. Pro-Ana preys on your desperation for acceptance. You are desperate to remain a part of the community and be valued. So, you try to succeed in reaching the top with the top being the best in whatever your eating disorder may be. You spend so much of your life thinking you are worthless and terrible at everything else that you want to be good at one thing. And that thing is your eating disorder. You follow dangerous diets, track your weight loss, how little you ate, how easily you purge. You want to escape failure, so you get sicker and sicker to be Ana’s favourite. When you see others doing a ‘better job,’ you feel inadequate. Your brain has already attempted to escape these feelings by developing an eating disorder. As a result, your eating disorder manifests further.
It would be wonderful if the sites were gone but imagine the consequences. By taking these sites down, we are thrown out into reality; a reality we are trying to escape. We struggled for so long to be understood. Sometimes I think about the rush it gave me, the comfort of belonging. However, I knew it had to stop, because the longer I stayed the more I normalised what I did. I was beginning to lose touch with reality. These sites were all that mattered to me. My eating disorder was my number one priority.
If these sites were eradicated, there should be better research into Pro-Ana communities to appropriately deal with the fall out. Eating disorder and mental health services should help individuals figure out the rose tint that distorts our perception. And I think for services to fully understand Pro-Ana, there needs to be discussions, or some focus groups, with individuals with the lived experience of Pro-Ana. The more you understand this community, and how strong and deceiving it can be, the better chance you have in helping people living with eating disorders or recovering from eating disorders to recognise the deception. Eating disorders will do the best they can to fool people with a guise of them being the answer to all problems. Pro-Ana is one of their most important tools. If you can understand what we are exposed to then you can understand what our relationship with eating disorders are like.
In honour of Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2020, I feel it is necessary to prioritise the voice of lived experience as the expert voice, especially to better understand the mental health side; this is an often misrepresented element of the condition. We are desperately seeking out help from anyone who will help us to not feel like a failure and Pro-Ana communities often answer this call. If you can understand Pro-Ana, you can begin to understand how we perceive ourselves and the manifestation of eating disorders.