I spotted Maddie’s red hair in the gadget shop window. Her hands were on one of those plasma globes that look like crystal balls, an electric current drawn to her touch. She was wearing the shop uniform, but it was empty inside and her eyes were fixed on the toy. I decided to go in, then I decided against it and walked back down the street.
Forcing small talk with an old friend is one thing. Small talk with someone who was only friends with a part of you – a part you kept hidden from everyone else – is more complicated.
Maddie went to the same high school as me, but we weren’t so much school friends as internet friends. And the corner of the internet we shared was a pro-ana LiveJournal community, a virtual home for young women who were passionate about starving themselves.
Pro-ana (pro-anorexia) and pro-mia (pro-bulimia) are terms used by people who talk about eating disorders like they’re a lifestyle choice instead of the crippling mental disorders they are. Members of pro-ana groups exchange tips, “thin commandments”, and “thinspiration” to motivate one another to continue dieting, bingeing, and purging.
These groups are also where I found some of the most serious friendships of my life, when I needed them most. But as my online life became less anonymous – and my offline life became less tumultuous – I lost touch with the relationships forged in the intensity of teenage self-loathing. When I tracked down Maddie at age 21, all I could think was, What do we share now that I’ve left all that behind?
I first joined a pro-ana community when I was 13. I had been given a writing assignment about eating disorders and female representation in the media. Coincidentally, I was also given a drama assignment to create a five-minute play about bulimia.
While I was doing research for these projects I read an article condemning pro-ana communities on Xanga and LiveJournal. The article said these forums were a threat to young girls and needed to be shut down. I had never heard of pro-ana before. I decided to stop reading about it and witness the whole thing myself. I made an account, gave myself a fake name, and dove in.
I revisited my pro-ana LiveJournal account recently. A woman I met there, now a Facebook friend, had announced, on Facebook, that she was expecting a baby. I felt happy and worried for her and wanted to see if I could find any of our old exchanges.
She had deleted her account and all our exchanges vanished with it. What was left was mostly my own ramblings. My first pro-ana post was about how “yuck” and “gross” I felt for having eaten an entire box of Pringles. I’d tried to purge but nothing came out. “NooOooOO!11!” I wrote.
At the time, I had never even been on a diet. But there was something about this dark part of the internet that appealed to me. I was living in a boarding house in the Netherlands filled with kids who couldn’t live with their parents (for reasons ranging from serious abuse to diplomatic responsibilities) and run by male mentors who asked me to sit in their laps and call them “daddy.” My parents were living in Doha, Qatar, (where my dad had been hired to help boost the country’s tourism) and I was lonely.
Reading back my own LiveJournal entries, it doesn’t feel like me. I was trying to copy the pro-ana mindset, own it, and eventually adopt it, which I did. Pro-ana women were angsty, angry, and insecure, and I found comfort in that. That was how I felt on the inside, even before I hated my body.
The first groups I joined had names like “anaXcore” and “proed_bones” and have since been deleted or changed into “pro-recovery” communities. Membership required you to post stats and a brief history of your experience with bingeing and purging.
For me, that was pretty hardcore. I lurked, almost admiring the dedication but not wanting to tell a stick-thin teenager that she should “keep going.” And exchanging stats wasn’t easy. My boarding house didn’t have any scales and I had no idea how much I weighed.
If they didn’t come online at least once a day I’d be sick with anxiety.
What I preferred was the Purgatorium, a group where conversations were 70% eating disorder, 30% everyday life. Stories were more in depth, and therefore more tragic.
One woman wrote about her release from a rehab facility. Her husband took her and their 2-year-old out for a celebratory meal, and when they returned home he found her purging in their toilet. He grabbed her head and pushed it into her own vomit, the way you rub a puppy’s nose in its pee to tell it to never do that again, all while the 2-year-old was standing in the bathroom corridor, watching.
I spent my entire days and nights reading stories like this, talking to women like her. Most of the women were older than me, and they’d help out with my homework, read over essays. If I had a party to go to they’d help me decide what to wear. I felt closer with them than I did with anyone my own age.
I was drawn to the community's darkness, but it was the more everyday conversation I needed. I spent a lot of my time worrying about these women, hoping they were OK. If they didn’t come online at least once a day I’d be sick with anxiety.
I craved friendships, real friendships. There’s a diary entry on my LiveJournal where I talked about wanting “to be real.” I announced my real name and asked for everyone to submit theirs, which made it easier to find one another on other social networks, especially on Facebook.
When I was 15, a concerned school friend discovered my LiveJournal. I swore off disordered eating and deleted my account. Then I started a new one, under a different name and set it to private.
I had moved out of the boarding house and my eating had come under the watchful eye of my parents. I was making a bigger effort to eat normally. I didn’t join the hardcore pro-ana groups, only Purgatorium and a couple of thinspiration groups, including “_realthin,” a place to post pictures of thin people you knew.
It was important to the moderators that these people weren’t models; they had to be “normal” thin girls you knew personally. One day, I recognized the inspiration. The strawberry blonde hair, the green jumper with sequined hearts, and the skinny legs swallowed by a pair of oversize Ugg boots. It was Julie, a girl in my year at school. It had been posted by a user named Maddie.
I clicked on Maddie’s journal and started reading. Her life seemed infinitely more complex than mine. She wrote about an abortion, abuse, and her time in rehab. Kurt Cobain quotes flickered in banners on her page. I put a couple of details together and figured out who she was. She was in my year at school and we took Spanish together. We were both in the school play once but our parts never interacted. I knew very little about her and now I was getting everything, in one go.
Feeling brave, I sent her a message.
“The image you posted in realthin is a photo of Julie, I know that girl and she probably wouldn’t want her photo used here.”
She replied: “Sorry” and took the photo down. She obviously had no intention of finding out who I was.
I tried again.
Hey it’s Maggy, we’re in each other’s year, we take Spanish together, I’m like you, we’re in this messed up part of the internet but we also know each other IRL, HEY!
I sent her a very condensed version of my life so far, with stories about the boarding house, dieting, self-harm. I felt ashamed that I didn’t have one big tragic moment that explained my messed-up behavior. Nothing that bad had happened to me. To my relief, Maddie replied, with her own condensed story, and we talked through the night. But I was anxious about what it would be like in school. Would we acknowledge each other?
It wasn’t an immediate problem, as Maddie skipped school a lot. But then, I wanted to see her. I had always wanted to be better friends with Maddie. She wore ripped The Cure T-shirts and safety pins in her ears. There wasn’t a patch of skin on her body that didn’t have a mean red scar zigzagged across it. People called her “The Tree” behind her back because of all the carvings.
When people noticed my scars I’d say it was my dog and they believed it.
At the time, own self-harm scars were hidden, confined to my thighs and ankles. Seeing Maddie so outwardly in pain, I envied her. I was part of the group of teens who were happy, did their schoolwork, and played pool at the weekends. When people noticed my scars, I’d say it was from my dog and they believed it.
When I saw Maddie in school after chatting to her on LiveJournal all night, we smiled at each other. A few weeks later I went to her house. We drank dodgy rum, sat on her bed, listened to Nirvana, and then I went home.
I wish I could say that Maddie became my best friend. That we came to love each other and, as a result, ourselves. What actually happened is I discovered that, like me, Maddie was obsessed with James Frey and his book A Million Little Pieces. When I finished reading it for the second time, I passed her in our school corridor and gave it to her to reread and included a letter. She gave it back to be with another letter and then I gave her My Friend Leonard, Frey’s follow-up book, and our letter exchange continued.
In other words, it was an IRL version of our LiveJournal relationship. We were still using writing to discuss the things we were too afraid to say out loud: self-loathing, people in school we secretly hated, boyfriends we thought didn’t deserve us. I still felt I could make her feel better in a letter than in person, where whatever I’d say would feel contrived. I didn’t go back to her house, but we passed books back and forth for the rest of the year like we were dealing our secrets.
I never said a proper goodbye to my LiveJournal friends — I just disappeared. My account had been discovered again, this time by a worried boyfriend. I was 18 and it had been four years since I first made a profile. I didn’t delete my account, but I stopped logging on.
I was curious about my LiveJournal friends’ lives, but not enough to keep up contact. I started seeing a psychologist once a week, sometimes more, which gave me a productive outlet. I began to spend less time thinking about food, dieting and exercise. It’s not as if someone switched the off button; it wasn’t that simple. But without the constant exposure to self-hate there was more space for me to be healthy and live life.
So it was strange to still be connected with my pro-ana friends on Facebook, where people tend to live their most socially acceptable life. People don’t write endless paragraphs about how big their thighs are; they don’t tell all their colleagues that they puked up a jar of peanut butter and some of it went up their nose.
Seeing these women I knew in such darkly intimate terms going to weddings, getting jobs, graduating, and doing “normal” things made me wonder what was going on underneath it all. Did they look too thin? Were their nails chipped and knuckles bruised from purging?
Maddie, meanwhile, always seemed more “Maddie” on Facebook. It took her a while to get an account, and as soon as she did I dropped a message on her wall: “Glad to see you on here too ;).” Her statuses were filled with Linkin Park and Brand New lyrics in all caps. Middle fingers and cigarettes featured in her profile pictures.
Did they look too thin? Were their nails chipped and knuckles bruised from purging?
I never met Maddie offline again. I walk past the gadget shop whenever I visit my hometown, but she doesn’t work there any more. I emailed her a few months ago, after I dug up my old LiveJournal account. I was feeling nostalgic for the friendships I’d made there – for four years they were the most intense and honest relationships I had – and was considering that maybe pro-ana communities weren’t all bad.
I asked Maddie about the LiveJournal days, if she was in touch with anyone apart from me. There were a couple of girls, but most contacts had faded away. We agreed that LiveJournal was a place to release some of the thoughts and feelings you couldn’t say out loud, but on the whole it was pretty counterproductive.
“I feel like there should be a place where people (especially young people) should be able to talk about stuff like this,” she wrote. “But I do think that when you put a lot of fucked up people together you can't really expect them to be able to help each other.”
A part of me wants to believe my LiveJournal friends did help me. We were genuinely concerned about one another, and those years would have been lonely without them. But when I stopped writing down my self-destructive thoughts, their power waned. When I stopped posting on LiveJournal, I stopped talking about myself as a “fat fuck.” I stopped writing “I hate myself” over and over again. I realized that hating yourself is easy; accepting yourself is hard work.
My online social life has migrated yet again, from chatty, status-updating Facebook to its mostly wordless colony, Instagram. There, I follow just a handful of my pro-ana friends, including Maddie.
I can see that Maddie is married and her hair is still bright and fiery. I doubt we’ll ever sit down and have a meal together; the main thing that we had in common is the very thing we want to put behind us. But I genuinely hope that she’s happy and that she’s kind to herself and that the the rum she drinks isn’t as dodgy anymore. And I’m grateful for Instagram’s heart function, for how much and how little you can say in a double tap.
For more information on eating disorders and resources that can help, visit the National Eating Disorders Association or the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.