By Amanda Melhuish
CW: explicit description of eating disorder (ED) experience
In the early 2000s, I made a Tumblr. It started innocently enough. I was a senior in high school and did the typical. Reposting photos of sunsets, Joseph Gordon-Levitt gifs, and quotes from The Perks of Being a Wallflower. But one day—and years of diet culture—inspired me to follow the tag #thinspo. My feed was suddenly brimming with collarbones, thigh gaps, and diet tips. After a few clicks, I also found #proana, which I learned stood for pro-anorexia.
This is the story of how I cultivated an eating disorder with the help of the Internet.
My whole life, it felt like the solution to any problem was trying a new diet. I was desperate to feel less like a failure. Many members of the pro-ana community felt the same. Pro-ana Tumblr traded advice. Not for recovery — we were united by one goal: to live like an anorexic. But very few of us thought we actually were. Looking back on it, this was just an insidious form of imposter syndrome. I didn’t feel like I was *good* enough at being anorexic to claim it. I didn’t have any of those well-publicized signs of an eating disorder: fainting, falling extremely underweight, losing your period. And because I didn’t fit this mold, I didn’t think I needed any help. I was in control. I reframed the symptoms as goals. I believed I could stop anytime I wanted to.
First, I became consumed with research. Which foods are more “safe” than the rest. Which brands made the lowest calorie bread. Where to buy diet pills. Where to buy laxatives. Exercise constantly. How to jumpstart your metabolism in the morning, so the withdrawal is even more impactful. How to burn calories by putting your body through wild temperature changes. And what tips we’d learned from *real* anorexics.
But our best resource was documentaries. We didn’t even have to put in an effort to watch them. More than twice, I just turned on the TV and stumbled upon one. (Do networks get great numbers on these things?) And based on the content, it didn’t seem like anyone involved was even the least bit concerned that someone suffering would watch these and get ideas… but that’s *exactly* what happened. Those broadcasted behaviors provided us—a community of copycats—with lots of new things to try. I’ll never forget how I felt when I saw an anorexic woman sing the praises of filling herself up with diet soda: “I’m on the right track.” Those irresponsibly-made documentaries inspired us. To appeal to an audience that has never even heard of EDs, they trot out all the so-called weird stuff for shock value. When criticized, they claim that choice is also about keeping it real and educating their viewers. To me, it felt like turning the suffering into a freakshow.
Before I realized it, I was spending every waking moment in pursuit of a goal weight. I stayed awake all night in fits of mania, exercising while my parents were asleep, then slept 15 hours a day. What stood out the most was my paranoia. I was obsessive, especially when it came to anything out of my control. My biggest trigger was college. Despite knowing I was *in* at my safety school, I’d refresh the acceptance email multiple times a day. As if the words would suddenly change and my future would be ripped away.
I believed the lies my anorexia sold me. I was very prone to anger, lashing out at my family constantly. I assumed people were always laughing at me, making fun of me, commenting on my weight in hushed tones. The more I starved myself, the more I felt like I was in control of food. The food was not in control of me. Here, I was superhuman, surpassing any biological need to eat. I was in constant competition with calories. How low would the numbers go? My food journal never left my side.
But after a summer of starving, the day had finally arrived: time to go to the school I never really dreamed of. The huge disruption in routine meant I had to build an entirely new system of habits. I had no choice but to eat in the dining hall, and it was too hard to hide my anorexia from worried roommates. The way I was eating—and talking about eating—was enough. Seeing the reflection of myself in their concerned eyes was a wake-up call. It took a few friends saying “this is not normal” to help me out of the worst of it. By that, I mean I stopped restricting in a way that couldn’t be easily accepted as dieting… and actors have a pretty loose definition of what normal dieting is. I never thought I had gotten bad enough to really say it was an ED. I still jumped from diet-to-diet for years before I felt like I could finally say I had an eating disorder. It wasn’t until 2018 that I threw out my “goal jeans.”
What helped me the most in naming it was a conversation with a high school friend, many, many, years later. He had just moved to my city and we caught up. Nearly 7 years since I got sucked down the wormhole of Tumblr, I looked him in the eye and said, “I was suffering from anorexia.” Without missing a beat, he answered, “I know.” Turns out we both had looked back on that time in my life and realized what was happening. It was the confirmation I needed to seek real, official, medical help.
Now, I have a therapist and can identify warning sign behaviors. I know to catch myself saying things like “I was just too busy to eat” and build an eating schedule. For me, it’s all about staying on top of it. I recognize my relationship with food is lifelong, and it’s when my life feels out of control that my anorexia tries its best to come back. Sometimes it shows up as caring too much about jewelry or clothes. Recovery isn’t permanent. I’ve relapsed. Recently. But giving myself permission to name the problem has made it a lot easier to fight it.
I’ve sworn off diet culture.That has come with plenty of empowering, simple pleasures — like allowing myself to wear shorts (!!!) instead of concealing skater skirts and tights. Accepting my figure without any qualifications has given me a cliché amount of confidence. I can bring my full self into a room without worrying about taking up too much space… figuratively and literally.
There’s a lot I’m still unlearning, but my standards have gone through the roof. My insecurities used to inform so much of how I talked about my weight, but I never used to consider how those words affected people around me. For example, if I say “I feel so fat today,” I’m making others think about their weight in comparison to mine. I’m not shy about stopping others from commenting on people’s bodies. I stop myself too.
I’ve even started to think my thighs squooooshing when I sit down is kind of cute.
There are also happier corners of the web. For folks in recovery, I recommend the following:
DietiTiananna (Anna Sweeney MS, CERD-S)
Has diet culture impacted you? Do you think being online is making it worse? Share your experiences with us in the comments.
Amanda is a Brand Copywriter at Thinx. She’s also a comedy writer whose work has been published on Reductress, Women in Comedy Daily, and Weekly Humorist. She writes and performs sketch comedy regularly at The Magnet Theater. Check out her work (and upcoming shows) on her website. You can also follow her on Instagram.