Considering pro-ana as a sexual and gender youth subculture

I had the very great privilege to co-author a chapter with my supervisor, Professor Mary Jane Kehily, for the collection  Children, Sexuality and Sexualization recently published by Palgrave:


Our chapter was on Reappraising Youth Subcultures And The Impact Upon Young People’s Sexual Cultures: Links And Legacies In Studies Of Girlhood. This was doubly funky because Mary Jane is pretty much a world expert in this area.

It also gave me a chance to explore with her some ideas that I’m beginning to tentatively consider for post-doctoral research, around the ana-mia movements (largely on-line communities of mostly girls and young women  who identify as anorexic, bulimic or vacillate between those identities).

This is something that I feel personally invested in because, during the final year of my BA, I chose to let myself myself become dangerously thin for a number of reasons. The pressures of aiming for a high result; choosing to drink rather than eat (very common with male anorexics); relationship issues; feeling that I had lost control of other aspects of my life but being able to control what I ate, and, wanting to punish myself unconsciously for the growing realisation that I had a bipolar condition. It is only in recent years that I’ve realised that I had used my relationship with food in this way.

So, attempting to look at the ana-mia movements from a non-pathological point of view was something that was really important to me. The following is an extract from what Mary Jane and I wrote:

The pro-ana movement, largely accessed online, has been written about as a subculture mostly from within the field of social psychology (Giles, 2006; Pascoe, 2007; Sheppird, 2007; Casilli, 2010). It should be noted that the term ‘subculture’ is used uncritically in most of this literature to denote a group of young people who have a shared social characteristic. This is further complicated by the fact that anorexics aren’t necessarily deviant or delinquent figures of the type that characterized Chicago School research into youth cultures and particularly street gangs. Nor are they necessarily oppositional or resistant types such as the Birmingham CCCS choose to explore, largely focusing on the interaction of race and class in a post-war, post-Empire Britain. Nor are the practices of anorexia expressed by pro-ana advocates analogous to a euphoric hedonism that merited the explosion of research into global club cultures in the late 1980s (Thornton, 1995). And yet, the pro-ana movement contains traces of all three of these shifts in subcultural theory.

Anorexics who engage with the pro-ana movement are both identifiable, however anonymously, and involved in collective problem-solving –  key characteristic for Chicago School theorists in defining subculture discussed above. Moreover, the questions raised by pro-ana and its members are not isolated from larger questions concerning body image, advertising, the fashion industry, the pressure of aspiration, the pressure to be normal/perfect, the role of parenting and so on; different in specifics but not in type from the large representational issues CCCS sought to explore for two decades.

‘Anas’ believe themselves to occupy a higher moral ground within the pro-ana community, defining themselves as against those with other forms of eating distress. Such a belief is frequently reinforced on a casual basis in postings on the sites. ‘Mia’ is commonly constructed as an easy option or a fallback position for failed anas:

“I always found something pure about ana, but mia I think would be easier: but then again they both leave messy emotional scars.”

“When I was mia I intentionally switched to ana because mia is so disgusting: Just look at all the anas who have a slip and end up asking mias for advise (sic) on how to purge. “(Giles, 2006)

It is within the context of what Sara Thornton has termed ‘the sub-cultural capital’ or ‘taste cultures’ for young people in Britain (Thornton, 1995), that pro-ana as a sexual and gender youth subculture comes into view. Building on the work of Bourdieu (1984) on taste and distinction, Thornton views subcultural capital as the signifying discourses of ‘cool’ young people in subcultures apply to key subcultural practices (in her research, dance music) to distinguish the cool from the uncool, the authentic from the fake, the subcultural from mass culture. As Thornton notes, these distinctions are arbitrary, which is not to say that they are without meaning. They are part of what we now recognize as the performative nature of identity (Butler, 1993).

Some of my best friends are white privileged straight men: Ellen DeGeneres defends Matt Damon

What is it about some white celebrity lesbians that they feel the need to defend white privileged celebrity straight men when they say things that are simply homophobic about gay, bisexual or queer men?

First of all, you have Jodie Foster defending Mel Gibson on any number of occasions. Given Foster’s own ambiguous relationship to the LGBT+ community (this is the woman who made The Silence of the Lambs after all) that’s perhaps not so surprising, if disappointing.

But now you have Ellen DeGeneres having Matt Damon appear on her show to justify (not defend) his remarks that actors should preserve an air of “mystery” in their private lives. This was in relation to a Guardian interview where homosexuality and gay actors had come up. Damon claimed, and DeGeneres supported him, that his words were taken out of context by the Internet to suggest that gay, bi and queer actors should stay in the closet.

Let’s be clear. Matt Damon does not preserve an air of mystery in relation to his own life when talking to the media. He discusses his politics, his sex life, his relationship with his wife, his relationship with Ben Affleck (he endlessly discusses his heterosexual bromance to tell us it’s not a physical relationship); in fact, Matt Damon never stops talking about heterosexual Matt Damon. ‘Mystery’ has been code for nearly 5 decades for the closet as any first-year sex and gender undergraduate could tell Matt Damon.

But what has changed over the last five decades is that some actors have come out in Hollywood. Not many, but a few. Yet DeGeneres didn’t challenge Damon for telling these brave pioneers that they should preserve their ‘mystery’. Instead, she made jokes about his and Ben Affleck’s heterosexual relationship that actually bordered on homophobic in itself. The clip is here

It was difficult to work out which was more offensive – Matt Damon’s use of the word ‘mystery’ or Ellen DeGeneres defence of him.

ABC of Queer: B for Burnout: the label that keeps on not giving!

While I was at the Non-monogamies Conference in Lisbon recently a young woman in the Q & A section after a session asked about burnout amongst activists. She said that she was a poly-activist aged 26 who was already experiencing burnout after only three years as an activist. Nobody really answered her question. In fact, people quickly moved on to other questions.

To a large extent, this is my experience of the subject of burnout amongst academics, academic-activists and activists in sexual and gender social movements (I suspect it’s similar in most social movements). We kinda acknowledge that it happens, we think it’s awful for the individual, but the movement is the important thing so we move on.

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been in social movement spaces where stock phrases have been used about people experiencing burnout. “She was too emotional… ””He didn’t understand what the movement was about…” “She took too much on… It was her fault.” In other words the emphasis is to exonerate the movement from any responsibility; the great tragedy is that there is an implication that burnout implies some fault that must lie either with the individual or the movement, so blame must be directed towards an already vulnerable individual.

At the same time I’ve been in other social movement spaces where activists have been incredibly supportive of friends and colleagues who were experiencing burnout. Indeed I would go further and say the best practice I have seen has been from activists who have chosen to confront the kind of narratives I’ve written about in the previous paragraph. I’d also go further. I would say that activist and academic-activist good practice on burnout I’ve seen acknowledges that burnout is part of the activist life/lifestyle cycle, not an aberration of it to be silenced. The real issue is the ease with which people are enabled to transition from an activist state to a more or less everyday state.

In fact, many of us who are activists or academic-activists may experience burnout 3/4/5 times across our lives. Actually the lifespan of a single activist role may only be 3/4 years. There is nothing wrong with that. As there is also nothing wrong with remaining committed to a cause for the entirety of your life.

But we have a tendency to fetishize that kind of commitment in social movements which makes people who aren’t able to match up to that kind of ‘hard-core’ identity feel less authentically activist. In reality, the history of sexual and gender social movements has been that the short-term activists have been as significant as the long-term.

As well, we need to consider what burnout is. It’s certainly not just people deciding to disengage from a social movement. It’s a complex cluster of practices and frames. When I started to write this I thought about the times of my life when I’ve felt burnout. I tried to consider the kinds of different meanings involved. For me, burnout can involve:

  1. Moments when your body physically breaks down because you have overextended it too much for too long (as a consequence of being an activist). You are experiencing all types of physical illnesses, especially illnesses that you should usually shrug off. The worry now is that some of these will stay with you.
  2. Moments when your mental resilience breaks down because you have overextended it too much for too long (as a consequence of being an activist). You are experiencing all types of cognitive illnesses, especially illnesses that you would usually shrug off. The worry now is that some of these will stay with you.
  3. The complexity of activist relationships which are often fuelled by the mission, but at the same time operate according to interpersonal dynamics. These can often involve issues of gender, race, social and economic mobility, et cetera.
  4. Simply the experience of living in this heightened state and space of activism which is different from being in everyday space. That there is something wrong with you if you can’t continue to live in this heightened space….

We need to learn to understand burnout, especially to understand it as natural and part of the cycle of activism.  Otherwise the great danger is that ‘burnout’ as a demonised and fetishized label becomes something that we carry with us as a traumatising narrative. I know someone who was an activist for 18 months, but she has been burnt out for 18 years.