Should the promotion of anorexia through the use of websites be criminalised? This was the question at the heart of the French documentary Arresting Ana which followed the life of Sarah – an anorexic and Pro-Ana (short for pro-Anorexia) blogger. The documentary, shown at Cinema Politica Fredericton on February 10th, also depicted the attempt of passionate legislator, Valerie Boyer, to render the promotion of eating disorders illegal in France by punishing or fining magazines, blogs and websites that present extreme thinness as an ideal beauty trait.
According to the director of the 26-minute film, Lucie Schwartz, the goal of directing and producing such a documentary was to give the authors of Pro-Ana blogs a face and an opportunity to explain why they do what they do.
Arresting Ana made for some uncomfortable viewing by highlighting disturbing and potentially dangerous information available on these websites as well as the extreme isolation and need for support experienced by individuals during the early stages of anorexia. The documentary explained why those who have eating disorders may turn to an online sanctuary, away from the surveillance of people whom they know; a place where they are able to say what they are not able or ready to express to family, friends or medical professionals.
Arresting Ana did not solely focus on Pro-Ana blogs but the question of liberty and freedom of speech. The documentary provoked a discussion among the viewers at Cinema Politica as to whether or not it is plausible to legislate online content and potentially criminalise those with a psychiatric illness. One of the central themes of the group discussion was, “At what point does expressing yourself become dangerous for someone else?”
In a study of 235 female undergraduates conducted by the University of Missouri, it was discovered that participants who were exposed to a Pro-Ana website for 25 minutes (as opposed to a website on home decor and another website on fashion but with healthy body mass index models) exhibited significantly lower self esteem, lower belief in their own competence and perceived themselves as heavier. Additionally, the participants who were exposed to the Pro-Ana website reported a greater likelihood of exercising and thinking about their weight in the near future.
Clearly, the findings of this study are worrying, however, when looking at Pro-Ana websites, what struck me was that many of the images of thinness found on these sites are mainstream images of celebrities and fashion models such as Kate Moss, Nicole Richie and Mary Kate Olsen. If these particular celebrities were not familiar to us, it would be extremely difficult to discern between the “deviant” anorexic images (of unknowns) and the images of bodies that are considered “normal” in popular culture. This highlights the glaringly contradictory messages that women of all ages are receiving about what constitutes a healthy body.
Although eating disorders are highly prevalent in society, there is still stigma and shame surrounding eating disorders, particularly when it comes to men. There are many misconceptions about eating disorders being a “girl’s problem” or “self-inflicted”. This can easily discourage many who struggle with eating disorders from seeking support or assistance. As a society, we need to encourage dialogue about the issue of eating disorders and educate ourselves on the misconceptions surrounding them. Only through dialogue can we even attempt to reduce the secrecy associated with eating disorders and work towards making it “safer” for individuals to reach out for the support that they need.
Servers like Yahoo and Google do shut down Pro-Ana sites, but such an approach targets the consequences and not the cause. The websites reappear elsewhere, renamed. An abolitionist approach to Pro-Ana websites seems disingenuous when much of the content on these websites is obtained from mainstream and legal media images of female celebrities. As opposed to enforcing punishments “after the event”, we need to collectively demand proactive (not reactive) legislation that proposes a framework of media ethics which severely limits the use of digital alterations on human beings; which bans any attempts to alter the proportions of any body, be that male or female. We need to demand that our governments invest in providing free services and treatment to those with eating disorders within our province as soon as an individual is diagnosed. We should also demand that our governments invest in media literacy campaigns for children and adults to help de-construct the false beauty ideals that many of us have grown to believe are real. If we fail to act collectively, eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa will continue to claim more lives than any other psychiatric illness. It is estimated that 10% of individuals with Anorexia Nervosa will die within 10 years of the onset of the disorder.
Finally, it is our responsibility to not only oppose psychologically and physically damaging representations of the “perfect” male or female body, but to refuse to accept these representations for ourselves. We can do this by taking little steps such as questioning every representation of body and beauty ideals that we see. Real bodies are not photoshopped and as Hanne Blank famously said, “there is no wrong way to have a body”.
If you are suffering from an eating disorder or think you know someone who is, you can call the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) at 1-866-NEDIC-20 (1-866-633-4220). NEDIC will be able to provide you with support, information and resources as well as up-to-date information on what treatment is available and where it can be accessed.