What shouldn’t women be seeing? On pro-ana, censorship and hunger

When I first became anorexic, way back in the 1980s, we had to make our own thinspiration. Pro-ana websites and online communities didn’t exist. The best you could hope for was the odd Woman’s Own article on Lena Zavaroni or an ITV special on The Carpenters. Most of the time it was reading the same old recipe books and collecting newspaper cuttings of Nancy Reagan. Truly, today’s eating disorder sufferers don’t know they’re born.

By contrast, these days we cater to the needs of the most discerning anorexics, with starve-friendly websites packed with bonetastic images.  Nonetheless, there are concerns that it has gone too far. According to an article in The Daily Beast (helpfully illustrated by a photograph of an emaciated body – get a load of that, thinspo-lovers!), “Italy’s Parliament recently proposed a bill that would criminalize pro-anorexia site authors with a $67,000 fine and up to a year in jail”. Disaster! What if all such sites were banned? Where would your average “friend of Ana” have to go for her next fix? Well, I guess there’s always Closer, or Heat, or Now, or the Sidebar of Shame, or a million other media outlets that regularly concern troll women who are clearly desperately ill (body shock! Starve wars! Size zero hell!). But still, at least you wouldn’t have those sneaky anorexics going off and doing it behind people’s backs, denying the poor publishers some much-needed revenue.

I’ll be honest: I am more than a little dubious about the Italian proposal. I understand the attraction of thinspiration, truly; even now that I am a normal weight, I still get drawn into it every now and then. It’s something to look at when you’re hungry and bored and anorexia is nothing if not incredibly boring. You tell yourself you’re existing on some ethereal plane, where food no longer matters, leaving you free to focus on true intellectual liberation. In reality you’re thinking about how many calories there are in Weight Watchers yoghurts compared to Shape ones, whether one day you will ever eat a Twix again, why it is that you now dream of Pot Noodles and a thousand other things you used to hate, and if you’ll ever stop hoarding food that you’ll never eat under your bed and behind the bookcase and anywhere else that comes to mind. It’s mind-numbing but the only thing that can ever distract you from feeling hungry is feeling cold, and that’s boring, too. So you go and feast on pictures of thin women, knowing that they’re probably hungry just like you. If they can do it, so can you. The shape of their arms, their estimated weights, endless conjecture on what they eat, all of these things take the place of genuine sustenance.

You don’t go to a pro-ana website to learn to be hungry. You are hungry already. For years you’ve been told, in so many subtle ways, to be smaller, to take up less space and to see your body as an endless project. For years you’ve been made to feel that your body isn’t really yours and that excess flesh is shaming. For years you’ve been watched and appraised by men, made to feel uncomfortable and to blame yourself for this. Starvation is too difficult and enduring to set in suddenly, as though on a whim. You have to really, really want, very, very badly, to disappear. That while trying to do so you might create your own motivational resources … Well, why should that surprise anyone?

Like hardcore pornography, the extreme end of thinspiration seems to me oddly ineffectual. Just as porn can start to look like fake flesh being stretched and pummelled by something equally fake and unfeeling, ultra-skinny women – death’s door women – start to look like bones. Why not just look at an actual skeleton? It’s the more mundane stuff that gets to me; women of whom some might say “she looks fine, just thin” (which might be true, were it not that you watch whole films and TV series, especially US ones, and every woman looks like that, every single one, dropping hint upon hint that this is how all women should be). With pro-ana websites there is, at the very least, a refreshing honesty. “This woman is too thin – bet she starves!” does, to me, have less of a sting than the “everyday emaciation” of the average actress combined with endless gushing over health kicks and detoxes (don’t say diet, because no one diets any more!).

It disturbs me that we might come closer to censoring pro-ana– a symptom of women’s pain at the bodies they inhabit – than the culture that gives rise to the pain itself. Male objectification of female bodies cannot be challenged without the usual, tired “you’re a slut-shamer / a prude / a whorephobe” bullshit. Women are asked to be insensitive to what they see in the media and what they experience when they walk down the street. That there is a real cost to this – and that it can be seen in illness, despair and a lust for emaciation – is embarrassing. We would rather shake our heads at the things starving women do to perpetuate their starvation than ask “why is it they do this?”

It’s a difficult question, and each individual woman will have her own answer. But I think there is fault and there is blame and there is a culture we need to critique. I’m not, however, sure pro-ana is the place to start.