Content warning for discussion of eating disorders, dangerous and unhealthy behaviors, self-harm, drug use. This is not an endorsement of pro-ana groups, just reflection on my time in them.
I first started throwing up to get out of school where I was bullied. I was eleven. Other girls in my class had already started dieting – drinking skim milk with salad in the cafeteria. But I think I was the first to try out bulimia. I felt very alone in it, disgusted and ashamed at myself.
Over the years I kept my eating disorder secret from most people. A few girls would give me clues they might be the same and when we discovered we were the same it felt like coming home. I could relax and be myself. I could say bad things about my body and never be pressured to eat. We encouraged the worst in each other but also the best. We’d cheer on minor weight loss and comfort each other through post binge guilt.
For a couple years it seemed I’d pushed thoughts of pounds and calories out of my mind. I worked menial jobs, had an active social life, and spent much of my time high or drunk. It was easier not to care – about how I looked or about having control – when I was making out or getting buzzed every single day. In some ways those were the happiest days of my life, punctuated as they were by depression and self-harm.
At 21 I decided to finally stop putting off college and enrolled full-time. Being around so many young and beautiful women in my freshman classes made me feel like an old and haggard stoner. The stress of managing a full course load while working part time and dating got to me. I threw myself into drugs and anorexia like never before.
I found Live Journal and its pro-ana (pro-anorexia) communities. The young women I met there were just as messed up. They’d been at war with their bodies just as long. They’d lived through as much abuse. They were my people and I belonged there in ways I can’t express.
Of course it was unhealthy for us to encourage each other in dangerous low-calorie diets. But the tips on reducing tooth enamel erosion after throwing up probably didn’t make anything worse than it already was. I’ve never seen a destructive group more self-aware of its own poor health.
When girls curious about extreme diets who didn’t have a history of eating disorder tried to join, no one would tell them louder that eating disorder is brutal and unwanted. And when one of our own would seek treatment, no one would encourage her more to get it and make it work. We didn’t want old members coming back. We wanted them staying well.
The relationships we formed were never just about our diets and exercise plans. We helped each other break up with abusive boyfriends, get help for addiction problems, and even tutored each other in school subjects. We also looked out for each other. Pro-anorexia groups were the first place I saw trigger warnings. Pictures, height/weight/BMI statistics, and descriptions of binges were all hidden behind cuts.
It’s possible I was in better groups than most. Since I joined dozens without real selection criteria, I don’t think this is necessarily true. I think it’s possible that sensitive, sick, ambitious girls are often lonely. I think even friendships that form over an unhealthy common bond like drugs or bulimia can be beneficial. I think people who can’t access real mental health care do the best they can with what they can find.
I learned a lot about friendship in those spaces. How to encourage someone who’s in a better place than I am. How to minimize harm of risky behavior. How to love someone while they are broken. How to love my broken self.
The groups I am in are much healthier now. We love each other in the midst of our shattered minds, but don’t encourage behaviors that would exacerbate things. We can accept the brokenness in ourselves and each other while still working to heal from it. I am grateful for the lessons I learned and grateful to be free of my eating disorder for the time being. The pro-ana mindset is harmful. Many of the people with it are loving and lovely.
I spent a lot of time in those spaces in my early 20’s. I eventually decided to focus somewhat on eating disorders, my final two years of college. Are they still around, but better hidden?