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Eating Disorders

Pro-Eating Disorder Communities Thrive on Instagram

Building identities out of what we eat and how we look is inescapable.

Aurora Stewart de Peña

For National Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2018, Tonic is taking a look at our relationship with food—and how what we eat is often symbolic of who we are . Our intention is to shed light on the ways in which eating disorders have persevered, even during an era known for #bodypositivity, and to share the stories that are often overlooked.

The therawtarian.com is a blog for people who don’t eat animal products or vegetables cooked above about 118° F. It’s a lifestyle blog, because being a raw vegan isn’t just about what you eat—it’s about the way you live your life. There are recipes, of course; raw chocolate pudding made of avocados, raw cauliflower popcorn with butter flavor made of flaky nutritional yeast, a BLT starring bacon made with seaweed harvested from the Scottish Isle of Iona, but in addition, there are articles about beauty and exercise, a podcast, and a store where fellow Rawtarians can buy apps and “cook” books.

Images of the blog’s founder abound. She’s a glowy-skinned Atlantic Canadian who enjoys sharing her raw food "journey," sitting in sunny rooms with pastel walls, and clutching bright glasses of juice. In a previous life, she ate chips and pizza and suffered mood swings.

The blog appeals to a fantasy version of myself that I’m ashamed of. She owns a water-bottle filled with ionized quartz crystals, and thinks nothing of wearing yoga pants with sheer mesh panels. She lovingly prepares Rawtarian meals for herself because she deserves deep self-care, and she’s very, very thin. People tease her about her piousness. She flips a glossy lock and says, “I’ve just never really liked the taste of oil.”

I don’t want to be her friend, I want to be her. But it would take a lot of tedious work and a complete erasure of my ethics. Besides, work is antithetical to this ideal. These women are effortless; sprung from nature through the co-incidental assemblage of Bikram yoga, nut butter balls, and gallons and gallons of water.

The Rawtarian has a community forum, a pretty common feature on wellness blogs. There are more than 5,000 members loving up on raw food in almost 13,000 threads. They discuss the ethical problems with bee pollen, how to fix a broken Vitamix, and, of course, weight loss.

Weight loss is the secret overlord of wellness communities everywhere. The “Why Raw Vegan” (Or “Why Paleo,” or “Why Keto” or “Why 30 Bananas a Day”) segment of any wellness blog will list many reasons to be like them; you’ll have more energy, your skin will be clearer, and your depression will finally subside. But the community forums tell a more focused story: Eat like this, and you’ll lose weight.

“Vegan diet, Mostly Raw For About 6 Weeks- Howdy All! … and ON the journey! Looking to get back to my ideal weight, which is 20 lbs lower. Good luck and happiness to all on here. Looks like a right friendly place! ☺”

“How much weight did you lose during the first month? ☺ Just curious, and did you eat fatty foods (nuts, etc)?”

“I feel great and have a ton more energy. But no weight loss. Anyone else experience this?”

And every so often, a question like this:

“How Long Can I Live on Just Juices? I'd like to ask how many days can a person go only on green juices? Can I live indefinitely on juices? ☺ Thank You”

One Rawtarian forum member wonders why the asker would want to subsist on a diet of only leaf water. Another worries she has an eating disorder. But there are just as many who give answers like these:

“if you also have hemp or flax oil, you can go around 92-100 days and still feel vibrant. if you’re not 100% and willing to partake in enemas or colon hydrotherapy, it's probably not recommended.”

“I am plant based for years but because of surgery complications I stopped eating almost entirely. If I eat, even if it's just fruit- I get fissures and abscesses in places you don't want to hear about. So the general gist I get from reading your opinions is you can’t live on juices alone for more than about a year. Did anyone try?”

It sounds like someone’s about to try.


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Telling a person with an eating disorder that they have an eating disorder is not a deterrent. They know what’s up. There’s a set of deeply irregular behaviors, all of which involve overriding evolved physical cues, like hunger, required maintain anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, or binge eating disorder.

I was 14 when I was diagnosed with anorexia. The therapy back then, in the Girl, Interrupted 90s, consisted of adults telling me not to worry, I wasn’t fat. They assumed, still a widely held assumption today, that eating disorders are the result of extreme measures taken to eradicate fatness, the least desirable of all the body states. If I’d been fat, but still living on six Diet Cokes and half a hotdog bun a day, I wonder if there’d have been such a fuss. Looking like an anorexic caused more alarm than being one. Until I got bony and started fainting in inconvenient places, I was just a girl with discipline.

The message was clear: it’s important to be thin, but being openly anorexic is stressful for the people around you. So, I taught myself bulimia. It was easy to learn, and easy to hide.

I went online and surfed early versions of pro-ana/pro-mia forums. Ana is short for anorexia and mia is short for bulimia; code names that sound like straight-haired models with visible collar bones. People who are pro-ana/mia aren’t trying to recover. They embrace their eating disorder as a lifestyle, instead of the deadly psychiatric disease that it is.

The forums I used to visit aren’t around anymore, but their progeny are strong. Myproana.com is one of the biggest: the forum stats boast over 300,000 members. The images in the “thinspiration” gallery feature the same palm-tree adjacent blondes and gap-thighed peace-sign tossers that decorate mainstream wellness blogs and Instagram.

Clicking through the forums, members still talk each other through extreme restriction diets. The big change is that the same diets are embraced by raw vegans and the fitness-obsessed paleo crowd. Raw Before Four, 30 Bananas a Day, and the Ketogenic diet all have their own discussion threads. Members praise 30 BAaD for its ability to satiate gnawing hunger, while others complain it made them gain weight. Back when I was a member of sites like this, all we had were calories. I never could have imagined a world where the pro-ana crowd and the girls on the soccer team were both going hard on 7 pounds of bananas a day.

Food obsession has gone mainstream, and eating disorders have tagged along. If you don’t have the time to scour blogs and forums to find innovative ways to restrict, chances are you’re following someone on Instagram doing a #detox (10,538,182 posts), or a #whole30 (3,318,441 posts) or grinning into a smoothie bowl while pledging allegiance to a #plantbased (12,960,289 posts) lifestyle. And even though Instagram gatekeeps pro-ana hashtags like #thighgap, thigh gaps themselves are alive and well in gym mirror selfies under the ubiquitous insta-reign of #eatclean (48,402,466 posts) where they’re rewarded with screens of positive affirmations. Under a photo of a woman on day 11 of a 30 day juice cleanse posing in a sports bra: “Your a babe !!! ‍♀️.” Under a meme of Julie Andrews, arms wide open in the Swiss hills singing “look at all the ways I’m a fucking failure” because she’d cheated on her Whole 30: “Oh girl! It’s ok. That just means you get to go along with my whole 60 that continues next week.” Under a video of a woman explaining that all she’s had for 48 hours is water and she’s about to go home and exercise to expedite weight loss: “Proud of you Champ!!!!!”

There’s a misconception that controlling food is the eating disorder. It’s a symptom of the disease, but it’s not the whole thing. The eating disorder happens when a person’s identity becomes the sum of what they eat and/or how their body looks as a result. But the domination that food and bodies have over our digital identities is building a bridge to disorder. Scrolling through the Rawtarian’s Insta followers, reams of profiles with names like “Kacees_Vegan_Life” and “Raw_vegan_beauty5053” show just how much we’ve normalized the you are what you eat ethos. Not every vegan or paleo devotee is sick—but they’ve given people with the disease, overt and covert, a lot more to work with.

Pursuing good health, mental and physical, means wading through a sea of panic about food and our bodies. The idea of “healthy eating” is shorthand for food that doesn’t make us fat, as though this were the only measure of good health. For every #bodypositive, there’s 10 #eatcleans. No longer the domain of pro-ana, hard-to-find chatrooms, and cryptic forums, our collective disorder, building identities out of what we eat and how we look, is inescapable.

In my own quest for recovery, for normal, healthy eating, the hardest part has been learning that there’s no normal to recover to.

If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, contact the helpline of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237, or visit their site. You can also live chat with a volunteer via Facebook Messenger, and text 'NED!' to 741741 for crisis support 24/7.


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