In April this year, Federal Labour MP Anna Burke called for a ban on websites promoting extreme thinness and self starvation following the crack down in France on these highly controversial “pro-anorexia” websites.
These websites, made by anorexics about the experience of anorexia, have been widely criticised in the popular media for advocating anorexia and other eating disorders. Concerned parents and lobby groups say that these sites should be censored so as to protect vulnerable young women from potentially harmful images that glamorise eating disorders and promote them as valid “lifestyle choices”. Others, including many pro-anorexia members or “anas”, have defended these sites under appeals to freedom of speech.
Having spent the last two years investigating these websites as part of a research project being conducted in the Media and Communications department at Sydney University, I think that on both moral and practical grounds, it's unwise to attempt a ban.
For starters, censorship is unlikely to work because it's virtually impossible to police the internet and our current filters are simply inadequate. Last year it took one Australian teenager less than half an hour to crack a government super-code that cost $84 million to develop. The episode was not only embarrassing for the Australian government, but it also highlighted the fact that our current filtering technology is woefully ineffective. As opinion writer Kate Bevan has argued, attempting a ban would probably be as effective as King Canute commanding the tides not to come in.
The other problem is that each time one of these sites is shutdown two tend to pop up in its place. With each regeneration, the sites become increasingly extreme and vitriolic in nature. This means that unless bans are 100 per cent effective, they actually only exacerbate and intensify the problem.
It's also difficult to determine on what legal grounds we should legislate against these sites. Unlike child pornography, for example, there is nothing criminal about circulating images of extremely thin women or dieting techniques, and indeed most mainstream women's magazines do just this. Indeed although images of emaciated women may be distasteful to certain pockets of the community, censoring on the grounds that something is “offensive” or “concerning” is a dangerously subjective game, and one that presupposes that offensive content is easily and universally recognisable by a unified moral majority.
Censorship issues get even murkier when you realise that the overwhelming majority of “thinspiration” images (images on pro-anorexia sites used to motivate weight loss) have been lifted directly from the mainstream media. Similarly, many of the dieting “tips, tricks and techniques” have been taken straight from medically approved diets or other media sources. I've seen pro-anorexia tips quoted from Oprah, Cosmopolitan magazine, Jenny Craig and even Men's Health magazine. In other words, being consistent in identifying inappropriate content is going to be nigh on impossible.
Similarly, although critics have claimed that young women might be “triggered” by the content on these websites, it's important to remember that women do not simply “catch” anorexia from the internet. Anorexia is an incredibly complex condition and to suggest that women can simply go online and download their own version of it is to drastically misrepresent and trivialise the condition.
It also seems pointless and ignorant to gag these anorexic individuals in the hope that the problem will go away. By censoring these websites we're merely ignoring the reasons why they exist in the first place and we're failing to address the root causes of eating disorders. Given that these websites do exist, perhaps it would be more fruitful to spend our energy and time asking why they exist, whose interests they serve and what they might tell us about anorexia that we don't already know.
Historically, doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, feminists, parents and media commentators have assumed the right to speak on behalf of anorexics. Although many autobiographical books have been written on the subject, these tend to have been written from the platform of recovery. Gaining access to the voice of the practicing anorexic has been virtually impossible up until now.
With this history in mind, I decided to go in search of anorexic voices to see how they represent themselves, and to see how they negotiate the dominant discourses around anorexia.
What I learnt is that the vast majority of pro-anorexia members have a tense and ambivalent relationship with their anorexia. Many seek recovery. When they talk of “pro-anorexia” they are not always talking about “promoting” anorexia. More often they are talking about promoting and providing a space to talk freely about the varied experience of anorexia, beyond the unhelpful stigma so often attached to it.
Many members use these websites as cathartic spaces to talk through their problems and many theorists argue that these sites serve an important therapeutic function.
Through these websites I have been afforded rare insights into the experience of anorexia that I could never have acquired through reading books or medical journals. This is because anorexics are far more forthcoming and honest online due to the sense of anonymity and the perception that they are communicating with people who aren't intent on intervening. For so long, the anorexic voice has been stifled or reframed through the expertise of others, but online, we're provided with a unique opportunity to engage directly with that voice.
It's also important to note that many of the members are using these sites to escape the loneliness and isolation that comes with eating disorders. In fact suicide, not starvation, is the number one cause of death for eating disorder patients. Many claim that these websites provide social networking opportunities which enable them to connect with others and so feel less alone, and less likely to self-harm.
So rather than approaching these sites and their members through fear, ignorance and a desire to censor, perhaps we should engage with them in order to learn more about anorexia, which is, after all, still one of the most misunderstood and misconstrued conditions.