Eating Disorder Awareness Week started off with a bleak tidbit. Canada has a problem: One in 20 young women suffer from some type of disordered eating, according to the National Initiative for Eating Disorders. For girls who are susceptible (read: most girls) digital media may be making things worse.
My years with anorexia began before the Internet. Karen Carpenter and Tracey Gold were my thinspo (a charming mashup of “thin” and “inspiration”). I devoured any information I could get about them, choosing to ignore the parts about their failing health and focusing instead on how much they ate and exercised, how they hid their disordered eating from their families, how quickly they were able to take the weight off and how they managed to keep it off. Without the Web, I had to glean tips on becoming a better anorexic the old-fashioned way: library research. Through magazine articles and academic journals, I found my thinspo, but I had to work for it.
Today it’s much easier to learn how to starve yourself thin. Just Google a phrase or click on a hashtag, and you’re served up thousands of photos of concave stomachs, jutting hip bones and the unfortunately coveted “thigh gap,” along with helpful advice on how to achieve similar results. As CBC News reports, pro-anorexia and bulimia digital communities are booming. Traditional pro-ana (“pro-anorexia”) websites and forums, which sprang up in the late 1990s, still attract millions of visitors. And now, thanks to Instagram, Twitter and other social-media platforms, pro-anorexia messages can reach millions more. At times I’ve wondered if I’d be alive if digital mass media had existed when I was my sickest.
Still, CBC News points out some bright spots in the digital landscape: Hashtags such as #BeatANA appear on photos of shockingly thin people, too. As Dr. Rebecka Peebles, an eating disorder program director at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia so succinctly puts it: “Part of you wants to get better, and part of you wants to stay sick.” I’ve found this to be a difficult concept to explain to people. Learning to view your weight gain and improved health as a victory rather than a sign of weakness takes time, determination and support. If that support comes in the form of a hashtag, I’m all for it. Anything to silence the voice that clings to the disease.
Another reason for hope: Stories about women who say they’ll take fat and happy over thin and miserable. Stories about women learning to love their bodies because of what they can do, not how they look. These stories don’t do much to inspire those who are actively anorexic — trust me on this — but they can help prevent girls from going down this horrible path. They can help keep mothers from passing down to their daughters the dangerous myth that thinness begets happiness. I’d love to see the next generation not lose precious years to this all-consuming and potentially deadly disease — and more years after that undoing the physical and mental damage it’s done.