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:

Sexualisation

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).

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