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).

BSA Youth Sexualities Conference: Durham 18/10/2013

This was a well-organised, well run conference as you would expect from the BSA Youth Group.

I’m not sure I totally agree with Jo Phoenix’s opening remarks – that there are no more sexual pioneer researchers. I don’t consider myself one, but I’m not sure that I’d want to close the door to another generation taking our disciplines into completely radical directions.

Matthew Waites’ keynote was a quantitative analysis of Age of Consent debates across the globe (especially in Commonwealth countries). He pointed out quite interesting trends: for example, the centralising moves towards an age of 15/16 in many countries. He also quickly discussed the recent Teddy Bear Clinic judgment in South Africa which decriminalised consensual sexual activity between young  people between the ages of 12 and 16 (where the judgment views young people and their consenting bodies in a very different light from standard recent British juridical-medical discourses).  Given the time restraints, and much of the material being quantitative, there wasn’t much opportunity to offer a cultural context for the data presented though some was offered in relation to India which helped illuminate the figures.

Mark McCormack’s keynote on the social mechanism of decreasing homophobia was full of cultural context. For me – this was one of the best papers of the day; not least because the content was matched by the presentation (is learning to use Prezi that hard for most people).  I thought he raised important issues about how Stonewall report on homophobia. How these may not be a moral panic, but have some of the features (of a sexual panic?) (which would be picked up on by Clarissa Smith on porn discussing Simon Watney’s conception of a sexual panic). He also discussed homohysteria as a concept (the fear of being socially perceived as gay) and outlined a model of homohysteric language. What kind of factors might impact upon this.  I thought that this was a incredibly strong paper; the only thing I would have liked was more clarity on the specific youth populations his work was speaking to.

Clarissa Smith’s paper on porn anxiety and children was, for me, the stand-out paper of the day.  As mentioned before, Smith distinguished between a moral and a sexual panic. Sexual panics involve anxieties that may flare up into moral panics, but mostly they exist all the time in our media and society. They are dominant narratives about sexual fears that exist at a low to medium level at all time in our society which the media both fuel and feed off. Porn and children involve a dominant model of porn, easily understood by adults. It engages with the rhetoric of the child in danger, framing risk, exposure and addiction. The difficulty is that when young people are spoken to about porn, they also frame their public accounts in accordance with this public model available in the media. Smith then offered ethnographic accounts of young people speaking about their porn use (where they’d been offered the opportunity to reflect rather than simply say what they felt was socially acceptable). The accounts were so considered and challenged how we view youth sexuality, youth agency and the use of porn.

Most of the other papers that I saw were postgrads. Although the standard was very high with one glaring exception; I’m not going to comment as I wouldn’t want someone to comment on my work at this stage.

Straight by the book? Boxing straight single men in…

I was watching a TV program called The Insider on BBC3 last night.

The basic premise is that five people compete for a coveted job (a bit like The Apprentice) by sharing a house for ten days not knowing that one of their number is actually their future boss observing them. At the end, she revealed herself and decided who had got the job.

Last night the four unsuspecting job applicants were competing for an internship with a fashion company. One of the four was a guy who had changed his career from construction to fashion retail. It wasn’t just that everything about him on the surface signalled that he was straight (and I use that term rather than heterosexual). He was pretty upfront about his sexual identity and seemed comfortable with it in the context of a career in fashion.

However, it became clear throughout the show that other participants read him as closeted gay man because of his interest in fashion.  Although the show’s format isn’t great (you could write endlessly about the levels of manipulation involved) the ending was actually quite moving. He didn’t get the job, but the boss (after she revealed herself) broke down in tears and apologised for the assumptions that she had made about his sexual identity.

For me, it raised all sort of questions about the way that masculinities are policed. The fashion company involved saw themselves as a “family” with a lot of strong women in management as well as gay men. However, it raised questions about the kinds of identities expected of those gay men by those strong women which, to her credit, I think the boss acknowledged. There was also a curious meta-irony to this – that you had a woman passing herself off as something she wasn’t making quite stereotyped assumptions about a man for presenting himself for who he was. The other great irony was that when she had the final discussion with him it was all conducted in euphemisms, the language of the closet, but the open secret was heterosexuality not homosexuality.

Cory Booker is a well-educated, well-dressed, single, black American politician. At present, he is engaged in the run-up to Senate elections having been (for most observers) a successful Mayor of Newark (a deprived city in New Jersey with a large black population). However (just like the guy on The Insider) his competence seems of less interest to many observers than his sexuality.  Put simply, for many observers on the left as well as on the right, a well-educated, single black man past a certain age must be a closeted homosexual.

I don’t know Cory Booker – I cannot give an opinion about his personal sexual identity apart from his personal statements (which position him as a straight man with progressive views of LGBTQQA+ politics). I certainly understand, from gay and bisexual black and mixed-race friends, why a man from one of those backgrounds might still remain circumspect about his sexuality. What interests me (as with The Insider) are, in a period where we are constantly bombarded with discourses of tolerance and change, the persistence of such limited roles for straight men to occupy in social contexts (the family, the workplace, education, politics, etc.). I’m not being naïve; I accept that those roles often privilege men who identify as straight, but it’s a two-edged sword.

If sexual politics has shifted then the closet has also shifted, but the way that it polices masculinities seems to me as powerful as ever. Straight, white, working-class men can’t be interested in fashion (have these people never watched Geordie Shores????); straight, black educated men can’t be single. By implication, this is just as limiting of trans, bisexual and gay men in terms of the social roles we are now allowed to openly occupy without considering issues of race, social mobility and education. The new closet, or closets, creates new insiders and new outsiders.  The positioning of particular, straight, male identities as ambiguous (and disturbing to the point that it can elicit tears from a woman working in an ostensibly LGBT-friendly industry such as fashion) reveals why people should be so concerned to box a politician like Booker in on issues of sexuality rather than politics.