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"Liking" Sickness

Why my early experience in the pro-ana world led to my social media abstinence

Social media is an easy target, and I am often guilty of being a kamikaze. On my bad days, I sound a little like Jonathan Franzen, with nowhere near the publicity capital to back it up. But most of the time, I try to keep the explanation for my conscientious objection short and sweet: “Just not for me.” (This does not tend to go over well with agents and publicists.) Until recently, it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder whether or not my early experiences online as a savvy wannarexic (I knew HTML!) cultivated my distaste for online communities. Then, about a month ago, I stumbled upon a fascinating article in on the Atlantic’s website entitled “Social Media is Redefining Depression.” The author, Anne-Sophie Bine, outlines how visual platforms such as Tumblr are molding young people’s vision of clinical depression as an illness brimming with romance, beauty, and wistfulness. She also describes how the self-perpetuating nature of these platforms, which rely heavily on re-blogging and “liking,” has created a closed community in which the participants––usually not trained professionals––are forever affirmed in their elegant sadness. The whole enterprise is uncannily similar to the pro-ana world, which I discuss at length in my book and spent time in during my youth.

When I was thirteen, I became very active on an eating disorders support website that featured a large forum with threads for every subset of eating disorder imaginable. There was a space for people who were anorexic, people who were bulimic, people who were both, and people who were some mish-mosh of everything, which was known then as Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, or ED-NOS, which has since been removed from the DSM. At that stage, I would probably have self-diagnosed as ED-NOS, but I tended to post most often in the anorexia forum, because I desperately wanted to be anorexic. The group discussions were about anything from songs that reminded us of our anorexia to the disorder in the news. Talk of calories and weight loss was strictly verboten, but I easily made friends with whom I emailed privately to discuss such sordid matters. When I was away from the computer for any extended period of time––at school or on a weekend trip––I would be anxious to get home and see who had written me. If smart phones had existed then, I’m sure I would have connected my Blackberry to my email and jumped to attention every time a sharp “bing” announced the arrival of a letter.

Years later, when I experienced a period of health, I distanced myself from the Internet world I had once found exciting and satisfying. Even when I relapsed in college, the forum played less of a role than it had previously. I had begun to realize that if you feel at all lonely, disenfranchised or malformed––physically or emotionally––there will be someone out there who will validate your feelings and whatever bad habits you’ve developed as a result. More likely than not, there will be not just a “someone” but a community, and they will do more than validate your habits. They will encourage them, in ways both overt and subtle. As I aged and got healthier––even, though, as I descended into pockets of illness––this concept frightened me more than comforted me, and I instinctively knew that I couldn’t engage in it at all unless I wanted to contribute to, not mitigate, my difficulties.

To a less nefarious end, these forums did for me what Facebook does for people: allows them to feel their behavior, or their essence, is validated by the world, which serves here as a permanent, democratic audience. If you become a participant in social media when you are of sound mind, that’s one thing. But I was a sophomore in college when Facebook became available to me, just one year after I had left school months early to seek inpatient treatment, and the memory of wading around in forums dedicated to illness and its details was still too strong. Plus, I had a number of “friends” I had met while inpatient, most of whom I knew had no intention of trying to shed their eating disorders when they left the hospital. When I explained that I would probably be too tempted to “stalk” people if I had Facebook, a friend smirked and said, “Ex-boyfriends?” I was too embarrassed to say, “No, other anorexics.” I knew that if I could peek into the lives of these people with so little effort, I probably wouldn’t be able to stop myself from marking the progress, or deterioration, of these hospital acquaintances. They, too, would have an easy way of reaching out to me and renewing the line of communication that both parties, I can only assume, would be too vulnerable to maintain in a healthy way.

For a while there, I knew a friend’s password and username, and when I signed in, I checked up on a girl I had known named Claire. I watched the slideshow of her photo album repeatedly, tracing the edges of her limbs as she got smaller and smaller. In each photo, she was smartly dressed and increasingly more emaciated. In contrast to the other people pictured, she looked like a grotesque piece of artwork; your eye moved to her involuntarily. The scenes all looked almost happy––Claire and friends lying out in bathing suits in Central Park, Claire playing checkers with a boyfriend, her clowning off for the camera. It took a great deal of effort to convince myself that despite the jolly noise, the signal was certainly bleak.


About the Author

Kelsey Osgood

Kelsey Osgood is the author of How to Disappear Completely. Her essays have appeared in New York and The New Yorker's Culture Desk blog.