When ‘Support’ Goes Awry

Supporting those with eating disorders is a complicated thing, and a subject I’ve touched upon from time to time here. I felt like it deserved another post, however, after reading an article sent to me by a friend (I’d call her by name, but I’m not sure which one she’d want me to go with, so I’ll just call her “J”)


 I’ll summarize as best I can here.

As long as the internet has existed, there have been people using it for, well, less than healthy pursuits (get your mind out of the gutter, but yes, that too). In the world of eating disorders, for more than a decade now, there have been online communities known as “pro-ana” (pro anorexic) or what they’re now calling “Thinspo” or “Thinspiration” blogs. Thinspiration consists of photos (often heavily photoshopped) of severely underweight women (often models) that serve as “goals” for young women who want to lose weight. (There is also fitspo and reverse thinspo)  The blogs also offer tips on burning calories, fighting hunger, and hiding your illness from those around you. One girl cites avoiding an eating disorder as her reason for participating in this culture:

“I mean, they help you a lot. Even though it’s not good for society and other people, it can help you lose weight so fast that you won’t have time to get an eating disorder… And I’m not afraid. I’m ready to risk for perfection.”

I’m not going to lie. There have been times when I have sought out these sites (very infrequently, but even one look is too much, in my humble opinion) for tips and tricks. While I used them as a sort of “weight-loss Wikipedia”, many girls (and boys) create communities around their illnesses, offering encouragement and support to each other to keep losing weight. As with eating disorders, however, I believe the real inspiration behind these sites has nothing to do with weight loss.

Often, eating disorders stem from a deep feeling of shame. There are many different causes for that shame to exist, but it seems to be a recurring theme. That shame keeps you locked in a very isolated place. Everything you think and feel becomes a deep, dark secret that you can’t share with anyone. People think you’re choosing to act the way you are because you let them think that you are. If it’s a choice, then you’re not a victim.

For me, the first time I stepped into an eating disorder support group, I was shocked to hear people say publicly the things I thought were so bad and wrong and shameful, the things that made me feel like a freak. The feeling of “not alone” was one of the best feelings I’d felt in a long time. I think that’s how the thinspo blogs thrive. People who feel so alone find other people who think like them. Seeing pictures of people who are “the goal” – thin and happy – gives people a sense of control, and a feeling that what they’re doing can’t be all that bad. One of the hardest things for me in recovery wasn’t necessarily the loss of being thin, but the loss of the dream of what thinness would mean for me.

But it is bad. It’s really bad. I’ve seen it kill more than once. And it never stops breaking my heart to see people I love inch closer and closer to death. These people aren’t supporting each other to thinness, they’re supporting each other to death.

Alcoholics can find multiple meetings a day, if they need them. The same doesn’t seem to work for eating disorders. If the groups are free, they’re limited. Here you’re allowed two a week. There are more paid groups cropping up, but those who have lost everything rarely have the money to afford them. I don’t know what the solution is. Maybe the Thinspo girls are onto something . . . maybe we need more pro-recovery online.

In the meantime, here’s one of my favorite new quotes that puts shame into perspective for me. I hope it’s INspirational for you, too. Yes, it’s from Harry Potter. Shut up. I’m not ashamed.


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