The Dark World of Instagram’s Anorexic Influencers
“Want to join a toxic messaging group, where we’ll insult and body shame you to keep you motivated?”
The picture triggers me instantly. A mirror selfie, from the side, of a girl so thin you could see the shape of every rib, poking out violently from her skin as though they were making a desperate bid for escape. The post stands out almost as sharply in my Instagram feed, which is mainly body-positive bloggers, feminist artworks, and forlorn photos of my friends losing their minds during lockdown.
It’s from one of Instagram’s pro-ana, or pro-anorexia accounts, providing “inspiration” to girls with eating disorders, “motivational” content to get them to carry on starving themselves. As someone who suffered from an eating disorder herself, I cannot take my eyes away from the account. Those old feelings of obsession, the desire to take up as little space as possible come back to me, and I long to make my body melt. “It’s so unhealthy. It’s wrong. It doesn’t look good,” I think to myself. But that wasn’t my first thought. My first thought was “Wow, she’s so thin. She’s so disciplined. Why can’t I be like her?”
I go onto her page and scroll through the hundreds of posts of photos of sickeningly skinny women. Legs that look like sticks next to which the account holder wrote: “I need legs like this.” Others with captions listing the food she had that day. “One apple. One wafer cracker. A bite of my mum’s pasta.” She posts diet plans of 500, 400, 100 calories a day. At one point, she mentions going into hospital, and the tricks she had learned from other girls in the anorexic ward for getting heavier on time for weigh-ins. Pounding water in the bathroom. Slipping objects into pockets or bras. Intermingled in the comments and captions are the account holder’s veiled cries for help. She talks about sadness and anxiety. She talks about hunger and hating herself.
Instagram’s losing battle
Ana is slang for anorexia nervosa, and pro-ana forums and websites glamourise the eating disorder as a lifestyle choice and esthetic ideal. Girls swap tips and diet plans to lose weight and to hide it from their parents, since a large proportion of people with eating disorders are in their teens (or even younger — pedoanorexia is on the rise).
These pro-ana forums, once reserved to the dark dusty corners of the internet where the scary and the gross things lie, were brought into the mainstream with Instagram. An image-centred social media where appearance is key, it was the perfect fit for the pro-ana movement. In March 2019, the BBC and the Guardian both investigated Instagram, revealing that content promoting eating disorders was getting “out of control,” and that there had been a significant rise in hospitalizations for anorexia since the emergence of the platform.
Following the damning reports, Instagram started waging a war on pro-ana posting. Certain hashtags were banned, terms like #thighgap or #thinspiration don’t show any posts anymore, while others like #anorexia come with a warning and redirect users towards resources for recovery.
But it seems the platform is fighting a losing battle — alternative spellings of hashtags skyrocketed, or users stopped using hashtags altogether but continue to explicitly reference pro-ana in their Instagram handles and profiles. There are also private accounts, that limit their followers so that they don’t get reported, and private messaging groups where you can find “ana-buddies.” On my journey into the pro-ana rabbit hole, I see one comment on a picture of a girl so skinny she can almost hold her waist with her two hands. “She is so beautiful! I want to look like this,” said one girl. “Want to join a toxic messaging group, where we’ll insult and body shame you to keep you motivated?” someone answered.
Screenshot by the author
How these accounts reel you in
Psychologists argue that, while such content is unlikely to provoke eating disorders in healthy teenagers, it encourages and perpetuates anorexia in those who are already suffering from it. I fully believe this, because I feel myself slipping back into the mindset, and my eating disorder has been dormant for 15 years.
It started when I was 12. I saw a photo of myself and thought I looked dumpy. So I stopped eating carbs and then stopped eating much at all, and I always felt fat even as my BMI dropped from healthy to underweight. I was proud of my own ‘discipline’, my own ability to deny my needs. I felt a vague sense of superiority towards my friends as they ate chocolate cake, as though my misery made me better than them. No. Chocolate cake makes things better.
My anorexia was never that bad. It was an eating disorder of the kind that a depressingly large portion of young girls suffer from — some studies suggest between 30 and 60%. My health was never as bad as those of many of the pro-ana Instagrammers. And yet still, I got weak enough that I fainted in class and had to be taken to hospital. I got so thin that my periods stopped for a year. Looking back, that last fact feels symbolic. Just as I was entering puberty and becoming a woman, I came to hate my body so much that I starved it until I stopped menstruating. As though it was womanhood itself that I was trying to avoid.
My messed up relationship with food continues to this day — either I binge or I fast. My weight yoyos, and there has not been a day since I was 12 that I haven’t hated my body. When I see pictures of really skinny women, or women with anorexia in the street, I still feel pangs of envy. Even when I worry about them, their bones poking out, their frames wasting away until it is no longer healthy at all, I still feel slightly jealous of the discipline and control they have, and I hate myself for not having it. Even now, it would be so easy for me to be dragged into the pro-ana world. There were equal parts disgust and fascination in my obsessive dive into this part of Instagram.
We often forget long-term effects of eating disorders, how they can prevent you from ever having a healthy relationship to food and your body. Anorexia feels like an addiction that you never really overcome. You may be a recovered addict, but you are an addict for life.
You are also constantly surrounded by images that idealise extreme thinness. There is no need to follow pro-ana accounts — models and actresses and all the female figures held up as an ideal of beauty are enough to make you long for thinness at all times, and feel inadequate when you aren’t skinny. It’s worth recalling that modelling scouts were found recruiting outside a Swedish eating disorder clinic.
When I was deep in my anorexia, I remember feeling a certain injustice in the fact that thinness was being promoted everywhere, but I was being told off by my family and friends for trying to be thin. It felt like I was being kept from something, some mythical arena of beauty that I wasn’t allowed to access.
While the dark world of pro-ana Instagram models needs to be tackled, that won’t be enough to stop eating disorders. As long as women are presented only with the impossible beauty standards of today, girls will hate their adult bodies as soon as they enter them.