body image · clothing · femalestrength · fitness

Making peace with our changing bodies

“When you get thin again, can I have your bigger clothes?”

Someone at a party asked one of my friends that last week.  If I squint really hard and ignore toxic body shaming culture, I might be able to imagine that this person thought she was giving my friend a compliment.  “That’s a great outfit!  You’re such a fit person you’ll lose that baby weight just like that!  You’re so pretty in that — I wish I looked like you!”  I guess?

My friend is a fitness instructor, a former body builder, and someone who has fought disordered eating, body shaming and body obsession for a long time.  Her mission is to support women to love their bodies for what they can do, whatever shape or ability that is, to help them build emotional and physical strength.  She’s absolutely beautiful, luminous and kind, inside and out.

She had a baby six weeks ago.  She worked out throughout her pregnancy in a careful way, had a healthy birth and gorgeous wee baby, and has worked hard to love and be at peace with her larger body.  She went to that party feeling like she looked great.

And this one comment completely knocked the breath out of her, shredded the colourful, silken threads of self love she’d spun, painstakingly, one at a time.

***

HM The Queen Attends Trooping The ColourBody shaming and body policing are so much a part of our culture that a lot of the time, we don’t even notice them, unless they are shockingly overt — like this gym in Connecticut that sent out an email telling its customers to grab their excess flesh and imagine what that would look like in summer photos — “god forbid, a side pic sitting down!” — or the dank pockets of the celebrity internet that define women only through their bodies and competition.  I won’t link to these places, but one of this week’s headlines speaks for them all:  With the spotlight strong, can Duchess Meghan outdo Kate Middleton’s success in restoring her pre-baby body?

Most of these moments are so woven into our day to day lives that they’re noteworthy only when they hit us right in the most tender parts of our souls.  But whether or not we notice them, they twist how we experience ourselves.  And even when we have huge feminist reflexivity about this, we still get entangled.

***

Over the past few months, I’ve been committing some of those body shaming microaggressions on myself.  I’m 54.  I’m not quite menopausal, but Things are Definitely Changing in my body.  I’m fit and active — I’ve worked out 148 times so far this year, and am well on my way to hitting 300 or more again for the year.  I’m loving feminist crossfit, and training on a sweet new bike for this trip I’m doing with Susan, Sam, Sarah and others in Newfoundland in two weeks. 

But I’ve also gained weight this year.  Even though several people have commented on how “buff” I look from the crossfit, have said I look fit — even hot — all I see is a heavier, thicker middle.  My clothes don’t fit — not my favourite jeans, or a lot of my work clothes.  I’ve become that middle aged woman wearing crossfit shoes, leggings, a flowy top and an Interesting Scarf to everything.  It’s disheartening to have to shove piece after piece of clothing back into the closet.  And I’ve taken to making comments about myself that chastise myself for the weight gain.  Out loud.  To others.  You know the ones.

I know in my head that I’m fit and strong.  I have a lot of joy from moving my body.  I know that some of my weight gain is muscle, and some of it is being 54 and endlessly menstruating.  Because I’m still having mostly regular periods at this advanced age, I seem to be always experiencing the PMS-y hormones that make me bloated.  I also have some gut issues that contribute to bloatiness.  (And god knows, I probably sleep with the light on).

And at the same time, I’m in the “menopausal transition,” which includes, as this study puts it, “unfavorable alterations in body composition, which abruptly worsen at the onset of the menopausal transition and then abate in postmenopause.”  Those “unfavorable alterations” are basically an increase in fat mass in the average woman that doubles every year for the key time of menopause (about three years), and a loss of lean mass.

Our bodies change when we’re 12 or so, and it’s unnerving then. Pregnancy is a hormonal carnival.  A few people’s bodies seem to experience birth and breastfeeding without any noticeable lingering effect, but most are changed in some way forever.  The waxing and waning of hormones affects our mental health, our energy, our appetites, our sleep, our metabolism, our immune systems.   Peri-menopause is another unpredictable extravaganza, and then there is all of the older life stuff.  There is no “set point.”  It’s dynamic, always.

That is life, and this is what my body is at this stage of my life.  Just like my post-partum friend’s body is what it is.  There is no “back to normal” — there is only forward, aging, changing bodies, and the challenge of loving ourselves as we are, finding our fierce warrior selves.

The force of all of this shows up in so many ways. My friend said this morning “I don’t mind my bigger body but I hate that none of my clothes look good, and I can’t afford to buy new clothes right now.”

Not fitting into my clothes is a big trigger for me, too.  After she said that, I had a warrior moment.  (Well, a warrior moment with a credit card.  I’m privileged in that I can afford this, right now).  I  went on a mission to my favourite store that features affordable Canadian designers.  I decided I was going to leave with a wardrobe of work and dressy casual clothes that made me feel good in my body, felt good on my body, inspired me.  I realized I hadn’t actually bought new warm weather work clothes in about three years, always waiting for that moment when my other clothes would fit me again.

I bought five dresses, two pairs of leggings and two tops.  They fit me well.  They flare and cling in the right places.  I feel strong and pretty in them.  I feel grown up, not middle aged.  (This is Emmylou, checking them out).

IMG_8469.jpeg

They’re a departure from what I’ve been wearing.  And trying them on, having a good shopping experience, finding things that work for my body as it is — I tilted back up into liking myself again.

I think I’ll go get an ice cream cone.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and works in Toronto. She blogs here two or three times a month.

aging · body image · fashion · fitness · swimming

Guess which body shaming phrase Sam doesn’t ever want to hear again?

As you are likely sick of hearing by now, I’m on a cruise ship in French Polynesia. We’re currently anchored just off Bora Bora. I think it’s trademarked as the most beautiful island in the world but it’s also the most developed and touristy of the places we’ve visited. It’s known as the honeymoon capital of Polynesia. That might be a reason to pick another island to visit if you’re not honeymooning though we weren’t inundated with honeymooners at our end of the island.

It’s a big deal for me, this holiday. I don’t usually do big vacations. I think this is the longest holiday of my life. It’s certainly the most luxurious. (Thanks best sister-in-law in the world, thanks again.)

One of the things I really like about this cruise ship experience is that it’s not just North Americans onboard. There are loads of Australians, Canadians, also a lot of Europeans. There are a lot of different languages being spoken over breakfast.

But that makes for some interesting cultural differences across a range of areas including bathing suit choices. Some of the older American women are wearing what look like cute beach dresses. I’ve written about these before when I considered buying one but decided not to in the end. I’ve stuck with my standard issue athletic bikini through the years.

Blue sky with some clouds, lush tropical forest and a beach. Also, Sam in a blue and black two piece bathing suit.

The Australians, older Australians anyway, are not so modest. Ditto the French and the Germans. There are much older men and women of all shapes and sizes wearing fairly minimal swimwear. String bikinis and speedos all round. Who cares right? Exactly. Personally, I think it’s great.

Now we could each all do our own thing without comment. You do you! Nice beach dress! Cute string bikini! That’s my preference. But no. There’s always one person who uses my most hated body shaming phrase, “we don’t need to see that.” See here for my last blog post about it!

Often the phrase is accompanied by further editorial comment meant to make it clear that it’s not that no one could ever wear such a bathing suit, you know, it would be okay if they were younger, thinner, more fit, whatever.

I’m not a person who argues with other people I don’t know on small boats. But I kept thinking of replies. My mother’s reply: Don’t like it, then don’t look. Simple. Or my own thought, I don’t think she’s dressing for you. Or how about just, that’s bullshit.

Now this year, this time, I don’t think they were talking about me and my bikini. I’m hoping I can maintain my “that’s bullshit” attitude when it is. Because I plan to keep wearing a bikini into my 60s, 70s, and beyond. See you at the beach!

Weekends with Womack

Fit to be tied: clothes shopping and sizing madnes

Finding clothes that fit is not the most unpleasant task women face, but it is constant, often frustrating and sometimes downright demoralizing. Sam has blogged here and here about clothing troubles athletic women have, and both Sam and Tracy have blogged (here and here, among other places) on the elusive search-for-the-right-sports-bra.

As a size 14/16 woman, I’m used to (if not happy about) the fact that many clothing manufacturers don’t seem to care about my demographic, even though 14 is the most common size for women in the US.  But this treatment extends to other sizes as well, as I found out in person this weekend.

My 30-year-old cousin Xina and I met in New York City this weekend to hang out with some friends and their kids, go to museums and engage in a bit of shopping and other girly activities. Xina is tall (5’ 11”) and slender. She wears a clothing size 10—12. On Saturday (after getting pedicures, which are a relative bargain in New York) we headed to Urban Outfitters. She saw this really cute jumpsuit that she wanted to try on.

jumpsuitBut we couldn’t find a size 10 or 12. So we went to ask a salesperson if they had one, or if they could find it at another store. The salesperson returned shortly and told us, in discreetly hushed tones, “That item doesn’t come in a 12. 10 is the biggest size we carry, but we don’t have one in the store.” There seemed to be at most only one size 10 left in the entire tri-state area. Huh.

I was astounded. So used to being size and body-shamed in retail outlets myself, I was nonetheless surprised to see it in action with my lovely young svelte cousin as the target. Seriously, people?

Xina used to work in retail clothing stores, and wasn’t surprised at all by this treatment. She informed me that lots of clothing retailers relegate their size 12 and up customers to online sales, not stocking those sizes in stores. There seems to be a fear on the part of these brands that if non-tiny people a) populate their dressing rooms and stores, and b) actually appear in public wearing their clothing, the brand will lose its cachet, its mystique, its je ne sais quoi. Witness Abecrombie and Fitch’s refusal to stock women’s size XL and Lululemon CEO’s claim that “some women’s bodies just don’t work” for their yoga pants. By the way, he resigned a month after making said comments.

One (super-lame-o) claim that clothing manufacturers make about their failure to make decent clothing in sizes 14 and above is that there is a lot of variation in body shape in those sizes, so it’s not possible to systematize tailored garment patterns enough for production.

Again—Seriously?

What holds for sizes 14 and above also holds for sizes 12 and under, namely that body shapes vary in systematic and predictable ways. Of course the variation isn’t unlimited—for instance, people aren’t usually shaped like this:

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 6.22.32 PMBut I digress.

Here’s a diagram of a UK size 12 on different height women (for a clothing tailoring website):

size 12

We also see this in action when we put the same dress on different shaped women:

garment

And just in case you didn’t see this already, the “one size fits most” myth got definitively busted here with women of different sizes, heights and body shapes.

And hey, this clothing maker managed to produce cute tops and pants for these different-shaped women without violating the laws of physics:

physics

So.  What do we want?

Reasonably well-fitting attractive clothing in a variety of sizes.

When do we want it?

NOW.

Okay, I gotta work on the phrasing, but you get the idea.

revolution

Sat with Nat

Belly Patrolling

So I’ve touted my comfy no-bra summer styling and up until last week I had not gotten one piece of negative feedback.

IMG_3891IMG_3893

I love this combo, cool in the August heat and delightfully free of the boob jail thing called a bra. So I’m standing at a busy intersection at night wearing something similar to above. It’s after midnight on a Tuesday spent laughing with dear friends at Rock’n’Roll Bingo and a car drives by. A man in his late teens or early twenties yells out “I just LOVE YOUR BELLY!”

The sarcasm was pretty clear. I wasn’t terribly upset but I was perplexed. Why on earth would he feel entitled to comment on my belly?

My partner was quick to pick up the point “Oh women must be, at all times, attractive to all men or suffer the wrath of being patrolled.” Of course! How silly of me to forget sexism.

The idea that I, a women in my 40s, should strive to be attractive to all men, including men my son’s age, is ridiculous.

What bothered me most was that moment when I wondered if there was something wrong with the way I looked. I quickly shook it off, reminding myself that my belly carried two babies and looks, well, matronly. Sure, I can hoist my breasts up and look more traditionally appealing, but why would I? It’s summer, it’s hot and bras are for work or vigorous exercise.

I have a loving partner of 20 years who adores me. I have lots of flirty moments in my life where I feel attractive and get validated that I am my own brand of awesome.

So young fella, as adored as me you may not be when forty you are. Oh and SUCK IT, cause ya, I’m tired of this crap and it can end with you thank you very much!

body image · fitness

Treadmills in Sheds? Yes, That’s Happening for Reasons That Aren’t Okay

shed-clipart-shed_tng_standard_feltDid you see the UK Huffington Post article earlier this week that said women are working out in sheds for fear of being judged? Sam and I were working on our book this morning. I’m on the part about the feminization of fitness, which led me to thinking about how form-fitting fitness clothing keep lots of women away from getting active.

Sam has blogged about that before. See her post “No way I’m wearing that: body conscious clothing as a barrier to entry to women in sport.” The irony is that the more absorbed we get in a sport the less likely we are to be concerned about how we look. I can tell you this: the last thing on my mind during the marathon on Sunday was my appearance (well, okay, I didn’t want to be caught sobbing on camera, but that was all).

We got chatting about that a bit (instead of writing) and then she reminded me about the shed story from the other day:

Women are steering clear of fitness for “fear of being judged”, a new Government report has revealed.

Another heartbreaking reality was that those who do want to keep fit are choosing to exercise in their sheds, hidden away, out of fear of being laughed at.

The report comes after Public Health England revealed that the number of women achieving recommended levels of physical activity was far lower than men – 31% of females engage in sport once a week compared to 40.1% of men.

The report, which has been collated by the Commons’ Health Select Committee, labels “fear of judgement” as a key factor when it comes to why women’s fitness levels are below par.

Kay Thomson from Sport England said: “Three quarters of women want to become more active but something is stopping them – fear of judgement.

“Judgement about appearance when exercising, ability to be active, confidence to turn up to a session, or feeling guilty about going to be physically active or doing something when you should have been spending more time with your family.”

It’s sad and alarming that fear of being judged about their appearance or their level of ability is keeping women from doing something that can, in fact, create confidence and an alternative body-narrative that isn’t so focused on looks.  More than that, getting active is a matter of social equality. If women are so worried that they will be judged harshly that they are either not getting active at all or are putting their treadmills in the shed, that’s a disturbing comment on the way fitness media, fitness culture, and normative expectations of women’s bodies work to exclude, marginalize, and dis-empower women.

The exclusion is well-articulated in the words of this woman who participated in the survey:

She revealed: “When I looked online for information, there was lots about weight loss and running but nothing about running just as an overweight person, the psychological aspects of that and how tough it is when you are constantly shouted at, laughed at and clothes in fitness stores don’t fit you.

“It feels like the whole sport is not geared up for you.”

Fitness activities and physical exercise are not just for people who are already thin, not just for the young, not just for those with athletic builds or natural talent.

We need a more inclusive approach that does not body-shame people and does not perpetuate the idea that only a certain demographic has a right to engage in physical activity. I’ve written before about this idea of inclusive fitness. We are far from that ideal and the UK study presents clear evidence that more needs to be done to deliver a different message:

“I have women who tell me they run on a treadmill in their shed because they just don’t want to be seen in public,” she said. “But that is part of the problem. Because we don’t see many overweight women exercising in public, other women don’t think that exercise is for them.”

“They think it is for all the slim people that they always see out in the parks.”

She added that larger women aren’t able to get hold of sports kits which fit them properly, which presents another barrier: “No woman wants to dress in men’s clothing to go out for a run when there is already the risk of being laughed at.”

In my post on inclusive fitness, I said:

I’m old school about one fairly simple staple in feminist discourse: people begin to believe they can achieve something if they see others like themselves represented doing the thing they want to achieve.

It’s not just in the media that we need wider representation, but also in everyday life. If larger women can’t even find workout gear that fits appropriately, then that sends the further message that such activity is not meant for them.

In the UK, there is a movement afoot to create a more attractive picture of physical activity to a wider group of women:

The Government now hopes to address these barriers and issues by releasing a programme on diet and physical activity which works to examine how women, those with disabilities and overweight people, can be encouraged and supported to be more active.

Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign is also helping to get women moving by showing “real women” working out – in a bid to help others summon up the courage to get active.

It’ll be interesting to watch how this all plays out, and whether the campaign will succeed in creating a truly welcoming and positive attitude towards diversity among those engaged in physical activity.

Meanwhile, I think we can all agree that sheds may be great places to store our gear, but no one should feel so judged that they choose the shed as the place to use their gear.

body image · fat · interview · media

What’s Wrong with the “Feeling Fat” Emoticon?

Facebook emoticons, including "feeling fat," with a chubby face.You’ve probably read by now that Facebook has removed its “feeling fat” status update/emoticon from the list of options. Over 16,000 put pressure on the social media goliath by signing activist group Endangered Bodies’ petition.

This article quotes Catherine Weingarten, the author of the petition, as saying:
When Facebook users set their status to “feeling fat,” they are making fun of people who consider themselves to be overweight, which can include many people with eating disorders. That is not ok. Join me in asking Facebook to remove the “fat” emoji from their status options.
And when it decided to do the right thing, Facebook said:

“We’ve heard from our community that listing ‘feeling fat’ as an option for status updates could reinforce negative body image, particularly for people struggling with eating disorders,” Facebook (FB, Tech30) said in a statement.
But media is just about sound bytes (as I myself discovered in a TV interview that I’ll post below), and neither of these get to the full picture.

First of all, it’s not just about people with eating disorders and it’s not just about making fun of people. No doubt, Catherine Weingarten said a lot more than that. I’m almost certain of that because the Endangered Bodies offers a more nuanced set of reasons for what the problem is. The petition talks about fat-shaming, body hatred, and Facebook’s influence and reach as a significant social media platform:

Fat is a substance that every body has and needs. Fat is also an adjective – a descriptive word about a physical attribute. Just like tall, short, black or white, it should not be misused to shame oneself or others. However, the fashion, beauty and diet industries have an interest in making us feel insecure about our own bodies and over time “fat” has become a negative word, not a simple statement of size. There is nothing neutral about it. The stigma and criticism of fat and the elevation of thin make them stand-ins for other kinds of words, feelings and moods.

Endangered Bodies sees this fear of fat and idealisation of thinness throughout society as a form of weight stigma, which can have a serious impact on the millions of people dealing with negative body image. Body-shaming and weight stigma are associated with lower self-esteem and disordered eating, an issue that Facebook – being a social platform – needs to take seriously.

I myself blogged about “feeling fat” a long time ago, when the blog was just a month old. There, I talked about the difference between feeling fit and feeling fat. Most especially, we need to be aware that feeling fat has nothing to do with body weight. It has to do with the assumption that fat is bad. When we feel bad about ourselves, that self-loathing can express itself in feeling fat:
It’s a strange and complicated thing, feeling fat is.  It can settle in overnight, or even through the course of a day. Clothes that fit just fine when I put them on in the morning might by lunch time start to feel like they’re pinching and snug, especially if I had a bad morning.  Even the red silk scarf, not a body-hugging item, might not look right when just yesterday it accessorized perfectly. And a general feeling of unworthiness accompanies feeling fat. It’s astonishing and sad that internalized cultural stigma against weight and body type can feed so powerfully into these negative attitudes about oneself.

Remember, feeling fat is amazingly unconnected to actual body size and even percentage of fat. But it is also, for many women I know, the “go-to” feeling when they are unhappy with themselves about something…about anything.  This says a lot about the hold that our culture’s attitudes about weight and body size has on us. Even those of us who are explicitly and consciously attentive to the irrational and unfair social stigma, even working to challenge it, latch onto fatness (real or imagined) as a personal deficiency. It then spirals into an energy-sucking, self-defeating stick that might make a person feel motivated to get active (but for all the wrong reasons) or thoroughly hopeless about exercise because it doesn’t “work” (as if its only purpose is to lose or control one’s weight).

When we can use feeling fat to articulate low self-esteem, as a stick to beat ourselves with, then it’s not funny. It’s sad. One thing I believe is that when we feel fat it’s a good sign that something else is going on with us. And that’s probably not the time to invoke a glib emoticon that announces to the world: “I hate myself right now.”

The social meaning of feeling fat ensures that it’s not simply self-abusive. Not at all. A purely individualistic explanation of why it’s harmful to include it among “impatient, amused, better, discouraged” doesn’t capture the social harm. It’s fat-phobic and fat-shaming.  Even if lots of the people who feel fat don’t appear to others to be fat, they’ve internalized the message that fat is loathsome to such a degree that it’s what they latch onto when they want to express how much they despise themselves in that moment (because, and this is one thing it has in common with actual feelings, it can pass as quickly as it set in). That’s a pretty awful thing for people who others actually do think of as fat.

We live in a fat-phobic, fat-shaming world. In providing that emoticon, Facebook is perpetuating an oppressive social attitude.  The local news came to see me about this today. I said a lot of stuff that was more interesting than what they chose, but if you’re interested, here’s a link to the clip.  They will make you watch an ad first and for that I apologize.

And from the Endangered Bodies’ Fat Is Not a Feeling campaign:

With social influence, power, and reach comes social responsibility. It’s good to see that Facebook can respond appropriately at least some of the time even if they don’t have a very nuanced public presentation of their reasons.

It’s not, as the other person interviewed in my clip said, that they can’t afford not to be “politically correct.” Why do people always talk about “political correctness” as if there is something wrong with simply choosing a socially responsible course of action? That charge that mega-corporations are always having to bow to political correctness is a simplistic and dismissive response to genuine concern about real social harms.

And to those who think that in removing this choice FB has somehow done us a disservice, it’s not some God-given right that everything we experience needs to be expressible in a canned status with a matching emoticon. I’m glad they took it down and I will be happier still when we stop using “feeling fat” as a form of self-abuse and a socially acceptable way of body-shaming in a fat-phobic culture.
body image · eating · Uncategorized

Ana, Mia, and the Health Imperative: Do We Have to Eat for Our Health?

Example of thinspo "pro-ana" inspiration: "Stop stuffing your fat face.  eat. feel guitly."
Example of thinspo “pro-ana” inspiration: “Stop stuffing your fat face. eat. feel guitly.”

A long while back, after I’d just stumbled into the pro-Ana and pro-Mia communities (not as a member), which I had no clue about before I started blogging about fitness and health, I wrote “Why the Thigh Gap Makes Me Sad.”  When I re-visited that article later, “Revisiting the Thigh Gap: Thin Body Shaming Isn’t Okay Either,” I remarked that it contained some thin-body shaming. Based on what I’ve learned over the year and a half or so of blogging on these things, I said a lot of thing I wouldn’t say (or would say quite differently) now.

A couple of days ago Sam sent me a news story from the National Post that is essentially a commentary on pro-Ana and pro-Mia websites and on-line communities.  It’s entitled: “‘Anorexia is a lifestyle, not a disease: an investigation into the harrowing on-line forums promoting extreme dieting.

The author opens with a bit about a woman named Jade,

Jade calls herself an “ana veteran.” Her aim is to provide “tips, tricks and information” for others who, like her, are in the grip of an eating disorder. Her readers, she says, are “girls who are desperate in their anorexia and willing to do anything to lose weight. They are sick, but they don’t see it as an illness. I’ve been anorexic for 10 years and I know this is the way I want to live.”

Instead of urging her readers to stop starving themselves, Jade helps – often encourages – them to embrace their eating disorder. “I eat three meals a day but make sure I never take in more than 50 calories,” she writes in one post. Another boasts: “I’ve reached a point where I can go without food for three or four days. You can do it too, but it will take discipline and hard work.”

Moving into commentary now, the author says:

Her attitude is chilling but far from unique. Jade is part of a growing international group of “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) and “pro-mia” (pro-bulimia) bloggers, who perceive their illness as a “lifestyle.” Though sites like this have been around for years, hers is one of a worrying new generation of online communities that have turned anorexia and bulimia into an aspirational state.

The attitude is a bit chilling, I agree. But as an onlooker, my thoughts about this issue have evolved quite a bit over time. One thing that comes up regularly on this blog is a rejection of the idea that health is an imperative. There is no requirement to be healthy, to choose healthy options, to pursue healthy goals.

If there were such an imperative, that would support all sorts of interventions that most of us think cross the line by violating people’s autonomy and right to make their own choices.  Is forcing someone with anorexia to eat any different from forcing someone who is extremely obese to diet or mandating a committed smoker to quit or even forcing a thin couch potato living on junk food to make healthier choices?

It’s not clear to me that it is.  This is not to say that health is not a good. I think, in fact, that good health is an objectively valuable thing to have and to aim for.  It’s an important part of a good life and contributes something fundamental and basic to human flourishing (I’ve been teaching Aristotle lately!).

And still, it’s not something to be forced on people.

I get, too, that anorexia and bulimia, both of which are promoted in these on-line communities, are considered to be illnesses.  Considering them as illnesses, the people who have them are actually ill and in need of help.  But we allow other people with illnesses get to make their own choices.  If I’m diagnosed with cancer, it’s up to me whether to pursue treatment, not up to anyone else.  And if I chose not to, surely there would be support for my decision and people would respect it.

But with eating disorders it’s quite the opposite. Few anorexics or bulimics will find support from family or friends.  From the article:

Dr. Helen Sharpe, a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, has conducted research into pro-ana and pro-mia websites. They are, she says, “incredibly common,” and though they don’t cause eating disorders, they can perpetuate them. “What do they give people that they can’t get elsewhere?” she asks. “Eating disorders can be extremely isolating conditions, and so finding a community of other people who think like you can be a powerful draw.”

This idea of community, of anorexics and bulimics wanting to “belong” to a virtual family, is played out across the websites. On the world’s largest pro-ana forum, which has 65,000 users and 1.5 million posts, many topics are available exclusively to members, with layers of access granted the longer they stay with the site.

A couple of comments. As Sharpe says, these communities do not cause eating disorders even if they promote the idea.  I’ve lurked on some of the message boards a bit and seen that when someone comes on looking for advice about how to “become anorexic” she (usually she) is certain to get flamed.  She is urged to get out and to get a grip. Members explain to her that it’s an illness.

So even within the idea of anorexia as a lifestyle, there’s an implicit often unstated assumption at work: that it’s only a “lifestyle” for those who are already afflicted with an illness. There is a further assumption that it’s a difficult and painful lifestyle. No wonder they are seeking mutual support.

The shocking element for an onlooker is the type of support–it’s a lot of support to maintain and sustain the condition in a stealth way, so as to minimize interventions and comments from friends and family members.

But perhaps, like addicts or alcoholics whose chances of successful recovery are low if they’re forced, much better if they choose it, pro-ana and pro-mia support communities can nudge people into the direction of choosing something different and seeking help and healing:

Not all online discussion of eating disorders is negative, either. There are a host of websites that are more constructive than destructive. These ones, suggests Susan Ringwood from Beat, may hold the key to encouraging sufferers to have more positive discourse.

Ruby, a 32-year-old from the West Country, runs one such blog. She has lived the “half-life” of anorexia since she was 16. With her doctors’ permission, she writes to me from inside a psychiatric unit, where she is seeking treatment after decades of concealing her illness. “It’s a daily battle,” she explains. “There is a tug-of-war going on in my head. Recovery or eating disorder. Life or death. Fight or give up.”

Though she shares some characteristics with other sufferers who write online, Ruby’s blog is different from a pro-ana website. There is no claim that anorexia is a lifestyle, no “10 thin commandments,” no telling others off for eating.

Instead, there are sections entitled “myths”, “the facts” and “treatment”. Her writing is stark and honest; her acceptance that she has a mental illness clear. Most importantly, she urges her followers to seek help. “I don’t think pro-ana girls realise how dangerous their behaviour is,” she says.

There are signs, too, that writing has spurred Ruby on towards real-life recovery – a result that, experts say, might encourage others. “It’s a sad truth that my virtual life is more active than my real life,” she writes in a recent post.

I guess what I’m saying is that the issue is much more complicated than I thought it was when I first encountered it.  The article in the National Post would have had me nodding along a year ago. But today, I’m more cautious.  I still feel as if there is a reason to feel sad when people choose to pursue a life that restricts their range of choices and, by all accounts, promotes an excessive focus on one thing (much as an addict or alcoholic is focused on one thing).

But I don’t think that people can be forced to pursue healthy options even if they’re ill.  And that’s because health is a value, not an imperative.  And yes, watching people make choices that we perceive to be harmful, to support their illnesses, is a difficult thing to do. But the bottom line is, no one has to eat for their health.