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Reframing eating disorders as a personal choice?

Posted Mar 27 2012 9:19am
On a recent essay assignment, one of my students clued me in to a new term: "pro-ana."

The term, shockingly, is short for pro-anorexia.

I am aware that eating disorders exist, and that mass media plays a none-too-subtle role in reinforcing body image issues. In fact, that was the topic of the essay assignment (and to be clear, my student was reporting on the phenomenon, not encouraging it). But as I stared at the page, I wondered how anyone could reframe an eating disorder as a good thing? *shudder*
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Pro-ana? Not only is there a cute-sounding term to describe this disordered behavior, the topic has gained a cult following on the interwebs. The Huffington Post provides a detailed analysis in their recent article " The Hunger Blogs ." I would highly recommend that you read the article in full, but if you are short on time, here are some of the most shocking quotes from pro-ana bloggers interviewed for the story (note: thinspo = "thinspiration")
Sixteen-year-old Antonia (last name withheld) also runs a popular, photo-based thinspo blog out of her bedroom. "I like images that show skinny, happy girls," she writes in an email to the Huffington Post. "They look so confident and we can see their bones through their skin. It's the most beautiful thing ever. I also like tips about food or how to ignore hunger."
And this one...
It documents addictive and compulsive behavior, yet masks this behavior in the rhetoric of self-control and willpower ("Your stomach isn't grumbling, it's applauding").
Keep in mind that this next quote is from a girl who started modeling in ninth grade
"[Modeling and fashion] was one of the original reasons I started looking at thinspo," she says. "I had an interview with a very, very tough agent in ninth grade and they told me that they would be happy to represent me because of my height and my facial structure. But they wanted me to lose 25 pounds. I wasn't overweight at the time -- I was probably average for my height. It was a big shock for me and that's what really pushed me in the direction [of pro-ana]."
And this is where my jaw dropped...
"They say, 'You know, this is my lifestyle -- I live an extremely low-calorie lifestyle and this is my choice,'" says Pascoe. "And what goes along with that is all sorts of personality traits that they're very proud of. They have an extreme amount of self-control, dedication and willpower. And when they talk about it, they seem like these extreme athletes who run a hundred miles in a shot or do these 24-hour races.”
To be clear, I am not a 24-hour runner, but I do work out nearly every day. On Tuesdays I will sometimes run twice a day 2-fer-Tuesday style... But I fuel appropriately. I take time off when my body needs a rest. Frankly, I am in shock that anyone with a serious eating disorder would compare my running with their illness, because
Running. Won't. Kill. Me.

Ana Carolina Reston, fashion supermodel who died from her eating disorder , is just the most famous example of an extremely debilitating lifestyle. She was 5'8" and weighed 88 pounds when she died of multiple organ failure due to anorexia.
A modeling photo of the late Ms. Reston.
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At the time, Ms. Reston was still modeling.

So. Eating disorders can kill.

But what about running? Isn't it possible to have a heart attack while running a marathon?
Sure (though the likelihood varies based on underlying conditions ). Isn't it bad for your knees? No. But that's another post for another time...

Yes, runners can be slim and dedicated to the point of distraction. (And yes, there are people who have a disordered relationship with working out - similar to and often linked with an eating disorder.) But here's the difference: Not all runners will die from running.

In fact, most will live longer because of running.
(note: you see abs, not ribs, on Shalane)
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On the other hand, eating disorders do - in no uncertain terms - cause serious physical harm and can lead to death.

Having the willpower to complete the last hill repeat in a series is not the same thing as starving yourself for a 50-day anorexic bootcamp, aka the "ABC diet," that limits caloric intake to 500 calories or less per day! (If you don't believe me, skip to page 3 of the Huff Post article ).

Glamorizing starvation in terms that reframes it as willpower is just plain wrong.

What are your thoughts/comments on this issue?

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