I was admitted to the eating disorder ward at a psychiatric hospital the day after my junior prom. By the time I decided to enter treatment, I had been struggling with anorexia for two years. During this time, I was convinced that anorexia nervosa was a lifestyle choice. I was among the enlightened few that had realized I didn’t need food to survive. I was a member of the pro-ana community.
Pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia are based in the idea that consumption is a matter of personal choice. Thus, people have the right to engage in disordered behaviors without interference. These beliefs are propagated in online communities where eating-disordered individuals can swap weight loss tips and tricks, share “thinspiration” and encourage each other to engage in increasingly extreme eating behaviors. These websites foster friendships of mutually assured destruction.
There is a myriad of pro-ana websites online. Some of them I found too extreme. Several sites were shrines to “the goddess Ana” with quasi-religious “thin commandments.” After nine years in Catholic school, those weren’t for me. Other sites looked more like Tumblr, plastered with pictures of emaciated girls overlaid with thinspo mantras. I spent time on those websites collecting images to “inspire” me to be a “better anorexic.”
Growing up with undiagnosed and untreated ADHD and persistent depressive disorder meant that everything took longer and felt harder for me. I remember one instance where I had studied for three hours and earned a B on a quiz, while my friend had studied for 20 minutes and earned an A. I had the heart of an overachiever, but neurochemistry fought me at every turn. Growing up, I never had much of an appetite, so I decided to go along with my natural “talents.” Thanks to my apathetic stomach, I was going to be perfect.
Junior year of high school, my health went downhill. I was dizzy and cold most of the time. I was fainting regularly, my hair was falling out and I seemed to be sprouting fur. I finally became concerned when I had heart palpitations. As much as 20 percent of those suffering from anorexia will die prematurely from health complications, most prominently heart attacks, and I was terrified.
But this still wasn’t enough to convince me to seek treatment. As scared as I was, I wasn’t ready to give up my eating disorder. I felt like a musician going deaf, or a painter being paralyzed. Anorexia was the one thing I felt really good at. Entering treatment would mean breaking contact with the pro-ana community, which had become my family. Giving up my pro-ana beliefs meant leaving behind the incredible, supportive — read: enabling — friends I had made online.
Thankfully, one of my pro-ana friends entered treatment a few months before I did. We were close in a way that was viciously unhealthy for both of us. We lost contact while she was in treatment, but eventually she tracked me down and told me that I needed to get treatment, too. No one else who wasn’t formerly pro-ana could have convinced me: They could never understand what the pro-ana community gave me, so they had no idea what they were asking me to give up.
I should mention that I was not an innocent victim in this. Within my pro-ana community, I was on the front lines sharing “techniques” I had developed, encouraging others to delve deeper into their disorders. I helped my disordered friends inflict further damage on their bodies under the guise of helping them, and that is something I will have to live with for the rest of my life. It’s been five years since I entered treatment and deactivated my online account, and I can only hope that they, too, found people to convince them that recovery is worth it.
Tonight, with four other panelists at a Mind Matters event, I will be sharing my story. I am doing this because I see traces of eating disorders in many people at Yale. The cult of perfection can lead Ivy Leaguers down this path, in an environment where their self-esteems are constantly challenged.
If you know someone who may be engaging in disordered behaviors, encourage them to seek professional help. Be part of their support system, but not at the cost of your own health.
If you self-identify as pro-ana or pro-mia, this is it. I have been in the trenches of this disorder and I am telling you that recovery is worth it. It is worth sacrificing your eating disorder to get your life back. Being a whole person with flaws feels infinitely better than being the most perfect empty shell.
Jessica Magro is a junior in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .