This is kind of a rough story for me to share, I guess just because I’m so embarrassed of it. I look back now and I can’t believe that I actually did some of this stuff that I’m so active about speaking against now. I guess I feel like that kind of makes me a hypocrite, but at the same time, I think this is a really important story to share because it really has the potential to help people and serve as a lesson. I also am embarrassed about this story because I feel like it can kind of serve as an example of how eating disorders are “vain disorders,” but I’ll try to explain how that isn’t true.
I’m going to start off by first saying that this is my personal story. The things that happened to me most certainly do not apply to other people. Everyone else didn’t develop an eating disorder from reading pro anorexia websites and people that read them will not necessarily develop an eating disorder. I just want to share what happened with me. Also, I want to point out that I’m NOT pinpointing pro anorexia websites as the cause of my eating disorder because eating disorders are really complex things. All I’m saying is that they contributed significantly in pushing me over the edge from disordered eating to eating disorder. I’m also not blaming anyone in particular that I mention in this post. These are just some memories that especially stick out in my mind. Like I said, I’m going to try to bring everything together and show how my eating disorder developed and that it wasn’t the cause of one particular event. I think because I’m trying to do that, I’m going to start at the very beginning, rather than just skipping to the part where I was reading pro anorexia websites.
I guess I was kind of a socially awkward kid. Not an especially bad case, but enough to be a little bit different from other people. I can remember sometime when I was in the third or fourth grade, reading an article on why knuckles crack and I just thought it was absolutely the coolest thing ever. Later that week I was riding home from school with my neighbor and her two kids. Someone cracked their knuckles and I immediately started explaining why it was happening, so excited to share this information with everyone else. Before I could even really get started, my neighbor’s son turned to me and said “Savannah. Just shut up. No one cares. Why are you so weird?” Looking back I can see that I wasn’t being weird, I was just being an interesting person concerned with the world around me.
I also went to private school for a very long time. And with a class size of 10 people, I understandably didn’t get a whole lot of socialization. On top of that, I was just a really high achieving, responsible kid. I never had to be told to do stuff and I was really self motivated to do well in school. This was a recipe for disaster when I switched back to a public school (shortly followed by a switch to a different private school) in the 8th grade. Kids in public school were quick to call me a “goody-goody” for not sharing my homework and letting people cheat off of me. I just hadn’t been taught to do things like that. I was just so innocent compared to all of them. Everyone else in public school was already drinking and talking back to adults. Not something that I was used to participating in. Not that I think that’s a bad thing, middle schoolers nowadays are honestly just terrifying. I’m glad that I came out like I did, rather than like some of them. But even after switching back to a smaller private school, I was the “new girl” and I was invading the already close-knit group that they had formed. So I began to try to be the “smartest” to prove that I was worthy of being liked. Unfortunately, we were still in middle school and that just made everyone more upset with me for being such a high achiever. It wasn’t until the end of the year when another girl transferred to the school that they finally began to accept me into their group.
So as you can imagine, by this point I had pretty low self esteem. I had received a lot of messages about how I wasn’t “good enough” and I had learned to tune out the messages that said that I was enough. And then I started high school. I switched to another school with another new group of people. And as much as I ended up loving the high school I went to, it was like a petri dish for growing low self esteem. Don’t get me wrong, I love my school, I’m SO glad that I went there and I know I wouldn’t be at the college I’m at now if I hadn’t gone there. The high school I went to was very small and very academically advanced. It took the most advanced students from all over the county and held all of our classes at the local university. I took my first college course when I was in the 9th grade. But so did everyone else at my school. Using academics to show that I was “enough” was no longer a reasonable expectation because I was taking classes with the smartest people around me. I just couldn’t compete with some of them. There was no way. But I tried. You guys, I did a shit load of work in high school. I always had homework to do. And I put all of my effort into that during the beginning of 9th grade, because I wasn’t used to having to actually work to make good grades. I guess like most other high schoolers do, I lost my sense of identity. I didn’t know how to identify myself. I wasn’t the “smart” one anymore. Everything I could do, there was someone at that school that was better.
Then I started having unexplained problems with my stomach. It started bloating after I ate anything. At first it was over a span of several days. My stomach would keep getting bigger and bigger for about three days, then it would go down in my sleep and the cycle would start over. You guys, I was never, ever even close to being a big child. I don’t think I was ever even technically a “healthy” weight. I was small. But when my clothes were suddenly not fitting and my body was doing all of this weird stuff, I didn’t know what was going on. I guess I thought I was actually gaining weight at first. I can remember listening to two teammates at volleyball practice complain about how they were having a “fat day” and it just made so much sense that I was experiencing that. My stomach felt larger some days and smaller on others. So I cut back a little bit on what I was eating. As my stomach began to bloat and go down each day, rather than over a span of several days, I realized that by skipping breakfast, I could keep the bloating away for a little bit longer. Therefore my clothes would fit and I wouldn’t look as “fat.” I wasn’t at a level of full blown eating disorder by this point, just at a level of disordered eating. But I felt good. I felt better about myself as a person. Even though I couldn’t have the highest grade or the most friends, I felt like I was doing something right by dieting.
I’m going to take a short pause here to explain the difference between disordered eating and eating disorder in case anyone doesn’t know exactly what that means. Otherwise I’ll totally forget to ever bring it up again.
Eating disorders have clinical criterion that must be met in order to be diagnosed. For someone to have an eating disorder they would fit under the category of Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, ED-NOS, and soon to be (thankfully) Binge Eating Disorder.
Disordered Eating is a much more broad term that includes a wide range of abnormal eating patterns. If you have an eating disorder, you have disordered eating patterns. You can have disordered eating without having a full blown eating disorder. BUT disordered eating CAN (definitely not always) lead to eating disorders. An example would be something like chronic dieting or eating only at a particular time of the day. (on a slightly unrelated side note, I have seen magazines RECOMMEND chewing and spitting food as a way to lose weight. Society is ridiculous) Disordered eating can cause tons of emotional and physical problems and should not be messed around with (oh hey, remember this shit later because I will probably bring it up like 12 more times).
So then I started doing some research online. About how I could lose more weight and feel even better about myself. And I eventually stumbled across these pro anorexia websites. I don’t remember my initial reaction when I found them, I wish I could. But the pictures of the girls that were posted on there looked so great. They didn’t look scary like the media usually presents anorexic skeletons. They looked like models, like movie stars, like Victoria’s Secret angels, like people that people love. And the people online made it seem so ok to be doing these things to their bodies. Like it was their business what they did to their bodies and that made it perfectly acceptable. And they made it SO easy, by openly providing different “diets” to try, different exercises to do, ways to lose the most weight, how to convince people that you had already eaten. They posted pictures of “thinspiration” and participated in group fasts to see who could lose the most weight. And I became hooked. I felt like I NEEDED to look like those women, I NEEDED to be able to control myself and be good at something, otherwise no one would ever like me.
I continued reading these sites for probably about a year. In this time I just kept getting sicker and sicker. So many of the ideas/thoughts/methods that I found on those websites became engrained in my brain. Slowly I kind of tapered off of them. I didn’t need these websites to “trigger” myself anymore. I think that was when I began to realize that this had become a problem. That I couldn’t stop what I was doing like I always thought I would be able to do. I always thought that when I reached a certain weight, I would be done, I would be content. But it had gotten out of control. I didn’t really start thinking about what exactly had happened until much later. When I was still reading the sites I was very supportive of them. I thought that it was my business and I could choose to do whatever I wanted and nobody had the right to stop me or tell me what to do. But looking back, I can say that I was sick. And I’ve changed my mind. I’m so glad that I was able to move away from them so early on in my disorder, because I can only imagine that it is even more difficult to beat this when you’re less than willing to do so.
This is my problem with the pro-anorexia sites. They weren’t really a support system. I see a lot of people argue for keeping these sites because they provide people with a place to express themselves and be understood by fellow strugglers. Particularly with the new policy from Tumblr. I understand the need for that. Totally. But there is a huge difference between seeking support/understanding from people and encouraging people to become sicker by participating in group fasts, posting thinspiration, congratulating someone on weight loss when you know they have a problem, etc. Obviously I was slightly predisposed to having an eating disorder (through genetics, environment, my previous experiences) but who the hell else would be attracted to eating disorder websites other than someone predisposed to having an eating disorder? So did these websites cause my eating disorder? Absolutely not. Did they encourage it? Yes. Did they OBJECTIVELY help me in any way? No. And while I’m at it, can I just say that you can absolutely find support sites that don’t glorify eating disorders, trivialize them into disorders of vanity, and create competition among members at the same time.
Also, I know that a lot of websites are all like “well we post resources for people if they want to recover.” And, yea, sure, but can we be serious for just a minute? Those resources become just a little bit invalidated when basically all the other posts are about needing to lose weight/eat less/exercise more/etc. Those resources are not going to really do anything. People are on pro anorexia sites for a reason, and that reason probably isn’t to recover. The thought is nice though.
This will probably sound bad and I don’t intend for it to, but from my experience a lot of the people on those sites were not actually anorexic. Let me explain. Yes, there were DEFINITELY people on there that were actually anorexic and were still really really struggling. But SO MANY of the people on there were like me. Young. Innocent. Not yet fully eating disordered. So many of them were looking for a quick fix weight loss. There was always this mention of upcoming prom, or spring break, or summer, or whatever. There was a focus on only seeing the part of anorexia where people want to be thin, not seeing all of the internal struggle and self-hate that accompanies/precedes/follows/whatever eating disorders. It was so common for people to encourage each other to “stay strong” in their eating disorders. Interestingly enough, many of my friends and I now have to remind each other to “stay strong” AGAINST our eating disorders. So many people on those websites appeared to be still in the “disordered eating” phase, like me. I have no clue where any of them are now, but it would not surprise me if many of them ended up very sick.
I don’t know. I just can’t imagine actually experiencing an eating disorder and then encouraging someone else to do the same thing. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.
For a while now I’ve felt like I should have been “smarter” than that. That I should have “known better” than to read these websites because, objectively, I can say that I was a relatively smart kid. But eating disorders aren’t about being “too dumb” to lose weight the right way. I hear people all the time say that people with anorexia are “stupid, because that’s not how you lose weight.” It’s not about not understanding how the human body works. It’s about the emotional and psychological things behind the curtain of the eating disorder. I wouldn’t say that anyone viewing pro-ana sites is “dumb.” They’re struggling with their own issues, just like I was. And the appeal of pro anorexia sites can just suck vulnerable people in. It can make anorexia seem so safe and harmless and like the answer to all of my problems. I don’t know that I wouldn’t have developed an eating disorder if I had never visited those sites. They definitely weren’t the only thing that caused my eating disorder. But I might have gotten help sooner in my disorder, or maybe I wouldn’t have learned several of the “tricks” I learned. While the amount of harm that they actually caused is debatable, I know is that I can objectively say that they did not help me in any positive way.
This turned out a lot longer than I was expecting it to be. Sorry. But I felt like I really needed to share my history with pro anorexia sites and how exactly the affected me and what I think of them now. I think this is probably the final post on this for right now, but don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts come up later.