Should "Pro-Ana" Sites Be Banned?


Recently we’ve heard calls for the banning of sites that apparently promote anorexia, or are at least equivocal about it. The federal Government’s intention to filter the internet for the entire country has been seen as an opportunity by some to tighten access to sites that they deem dangerous or illegal.

The desire to block access to child pornography has been the driving force behind the Government’s rhetoric, expressed here in the words of Senator Stephen Conroy: "If people equate freedom of speech with watching child pornography, then the Rudd-Labor Government is going to disagree."

Already though, other interest groups have lobbied to have their targets included on the "black list".

Federal Labor MP Anna Burke has proposed the censorship of pro-anorexia websites, and Health Minister Nicola Roxon has promised the Government will consider concerns over such sites.

Anti-anorexia groups argue that "pro-ana" websites (as they are called within the online community) have become instrumental in maintaining the cycle of the disease by providing community and encouragement to those who would otherwise be isolated in their condition. "The number of websites promoting anorexia and bulimia has increased by 470 per cent in a single year," says teen checkup.

"Pro-ana website creators say these are internet destinations for people who are looking to connect with supportive, like-minded, anorexic people like themselves. If you’re as disgusted as I am right now, just wait. It gets better. Stanford researchers report that 96 per cent of people who have visited pro-eating-disorder sites said they’ve learned new weight-loss or purging techniques."

The words of pro-ana bloggers are certainly confronting:

"I’ve been using laxatives, over-the-counter diet pills and metabolism boosters, replacing meals with diet soft drinks and cigarettes, have become vegetarian and I’m purging several times a week. I know I have developed an eating disorder and I know some people might think I need help, so commenting on it will be irrelevant. What I want to know is, why am I not losing weight?"

To which other users dutifully reply that her metabolism has shut down.

Sometimes these sites make almost painful reading. A typical post by pro-ana blogger "Ana Regzig" (whose site Dying To Be Thin has, she says, had over 30,000 visits) includes lines like:

"This weekend’s three-day fast (the first one I’ve done in about a year)
was a huge success. I actually felt like I was starting to go a little
crazy off of the pure euphoria. There is no other way to describe the
ridiculous HIGH I got from starving for three straight days … Starve on, ladies (and gents!)"

Her readers comments are full of praise and admiration: "Oh wow! Wish I had the will-power to do the 3 day fast. Maybe I will. 😀 Good job!!" Also: "I just wanted to say thankyou for constantly updating your blog. It so helps me to stay on track." And, "We can do it, we just have to be strong."

But there’s a lot of the down-side too, like this post on proanorexia at LiveJournal:

"Today, I realized that my eyes are going out because of it. My skin is shit. My hair is falling out. Due to laxatives, well, let’s just say sometimes things don’t go so well. I’m pretty fucked from this disease and I feel like I’m being mocked when people say "I joined this and lost weight yay!" or ANYTHING like that. I mean, I’m not saying people are faking it, I just don’t feel the bond of the suffering and what not."

The quotes reflect a serious problem out there, but do they justify taking away people’s freedom to access this information and contribute to these communities?

Jennifer O’Dea an Associate Professor of Health and Nutrition at Sydney University told The Sydney Morning Herald that freedom of choice does not apply to anorexics because "they cannot make a sensible judgment". But as many bloggers point out, this class of people who we deem unable to decide for themselves has proven to be a very expandable category depending on who’s doing the deeming.

The contrary notion that sufferers have every right to choose a lifestyle with consequences ranging from chronic ill health to organ failure and death is certainly a challenging one, but it comes up again and again on the blogs.

Blogger Ana Regzig says on her "About me":

"I love my eating disorder and I hate you, so FUCK OFF!///// Haters comments WILL be deleted.///// If you aren’t ana [anorexic] but wish you were, fuck off, go count your blessings and eat a sandwich. Wannarexics will not be tolerated.///// If you are disordered and love it, I love you too. Be strong and THINk THIN.///// If you are disordered and in recovery, do yourself a favor and close this page now, call your doctor, and confess that you’ve been searching for pro-ana sites online. Don’t leave me a message, don’t leave me a comment, go away and concentrate on fixing yourself. Don’t try to fix me — I am not and will not be broken. Someone loves you enough to try to help you — you shouldn’t be looking at this site…"

This is the strange logic of the pro-ana blogs. "Feel lucky if you aren’t in our position, but if you are — Welcome: you ROCK!"

The thinspiration (or "thinspo") stuff is one of the most scary parts of some of these blogs (have a look at some here). In a nutshell, it’s material — usually pictures, but also video — that anorexics use to strengthen their resolve not to eat. Mostly it’s a lot of images of very thin women.

In the mainstream media you find a lot of talk about the way media and advertising distort our image of what’s attractive and normal, and how it filters down into our consciousness to make us unhappy with ourselves — but it all sounds pretty indirect and vague and it’s easy to dismiss it (especially for those who never really dug semiotics). But there is nothing indirect about the way thinspo images are being used to inspire and reinforce the already seriously distorted self-image many anorexia sufferers have.

If you feel that the bombardment by images of thin women we see all around us is generally harmful, then it’s easy to understand why some people regard thinspo as the most destructive of these images, targeted at the most vulnerable people (by themselves) with chilling precision.

On the other hand, there are many bloggers and commenters who feel very strongly that pro-ana comuinities are not the real problem, and are in fact part of the solution:

"I’m new to the Pro-Ana community…but since i’ve been here, not once have i seen anybody without an eating disorder encouraged to develop one, on the contrary, i’ve seen nothing but disdain for "Wannarexics", people who just want to lose a few pounds and treat this like a diet. Whenever somebody has mentioned recovery, i see only support and that’s the key word in all of this — support.

"People with eating disorders often also suffer from depression as i do myself, they also, particularly teenagers, feel they cannot tell anybody else about their disorder. So, would you rather these depressed and disordered individuals simply had no outlet, that they sat in their rooms in their own thoughts?

"Pro-Ana allows people to see that they’re not alone, that there is somebody to talk to and somebody who will support them. If one single person comes online and decides that their life is worth living simply because of the support they received, support they could get nowhere else, isn’t that all worthwhile at the end of the day?"

And again:

"Suspending pro-anorexia communities will not make anyone suffering from the disorder become healthy again. Allowing them to exist, however, has several benefits. It reassures those who join them that they are not alone in the way they feel about their bodies. It increases the chance that the friends and loved ones of the individuals in the community will discover their disorders and assist them in seeking professional help."

As another commentator on museum of hoaxes says:

"The thing is, these sites can make the illness a lot less scary and despairing for people. They will do it anyway, except that having these sites helps them to ward off depression and other self damaging behaviours. Anorexia is all about control — and it’s a hell of a journey to get it."

Are these comments just self-delusion? Are they merely disclaimers necessary to stop their sites being shut down by nervous ISPs? Or are they in fact doing the best they can to navigate a very strange space where individual freedom to choose, and freedom of expression is applied to something that is clearly very bad for you (as many of them freely recognise).

Perhaps they are all of the above. There is another issue that may help many people to decide: money. Does the idea that a blog receives revenue (eg in the form of a cut from advertising) change the way they think about the community value of pro-ana sites? There’s another one for the regulators.

Meanwhile, aside from the debates over whether or not these sites do more harm than good, there’s also the very tricky question of whether banning them is even possible.

As bloggers like Antony Loewenstein and Geordie Guy argue , the idea of creating a "clean internet feed" for Australia is fundamentally flawed. There are deep concerns that such censorship is enormously expensive, will slow the net down considerably, won’t help problems like anorexia or child pornographers exchanging material, and will seriously impair free speech.

"Why does the government think censors are the ones who can fix this and not law enforcement?" asks Michael Meloni on leading anti-internet censorship blog Somebody Think Of The Children. "Mandatory ISP filtering is about protecting votes, not children."

Syd Walker, who runs the blog Building The Great Australian Firewall Brick By Brick, comments with a different take on the motivations behind the Government’s push:

"If it was a matter of votes only, the Government would have given up on this one a long time ago. A recent opinion poll cited by a TV channel suggested popular sentiment is 4:1 against. [The] utimate goal of those pushing the legisation is political censorship. Child protection is window-dressing.

In any case, many bloggers argue that it’s not the internet promoting the plague of anorexia, it’s our whole culture.

Blogs act as summary debates — they are there for you to read and decide where you sit on the issue. As well, blogs can be one of the best things about an open, free, confident and evolving society of people working to improve their understanding of the world around them. Any reading of the pro-ana sites is certainly revealing, and at the very least gives sufferers a forum in which they not only feel supported, but also can express themselves without self censorship. Anyone seeking to understand the mindset and feelings of a person suffering from this kind of problem — and through that to help them — would learn a lot from reading their thoughts and the way they communicate with each other.

If there is any truth in the idea that pro-ana sites offer valuable shelter for desperate people, and that turning them off without replacing that support with something just as good or better, then we’ve kind of shot ourselves in the foot.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.