Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Things that make you go hmm...

My buddy K sent this link yesterday, which he found via a nifty site that our other buddy works on called Allvoices. The article is about how France is going to ban pro-anorexia (a.k.a. "pro-ana") websites and blogs.

Pro-anorexia websites, you ask? Oh, yes. They have been around for a long time. I'd link to an example of one, but then again, I think I won't. You can find them yourself through the miracle of Google if you really want to. In a nutshell, these websites give you instructions on how to eat as little as possible without dying, how to negotiate your everyday life without people finding out you're anorexic, etc. And they also give you pictures of super-thin people (and, I suppose, fat people) to be your "thinspiration" (no I am not making up that term, but how long before some diet company starts using it?).

Some people may be a bit concerned that banning pro-ana websites sets a bad precedent for restricting free speech on the Internet. People who maintain these sites seem to claim that they just want an online community and that they're not trying to recruit new anorexics. Here's a sample of the sort of rhetoric you find: 'when i was younger, i was always told of how anorexia was a "mental illness" and that it was a hideous one at that! Now that i have it, i dont see it as a mental illness, even though deep down i know it is, i would not encourage anybody to attempt to find ana, however, for those of us who ana has already found, this website is for you! This website is not encouraging any kind of eating didorders and i will not be blamed for anybodys! [sic]' So yeah.

My first reaction when I read the article was two-fold. First I thought "Yay," because encouraging people to starve themselves amounts to incitement to (self-inflicted) violence and (self-) hatred, and therefore shouldn't be protected as free speech. That's basically what the French official quoted in the article has to say about it. And I also thought hmm, this is sort of a slippery slope, because if you examine regular old diets, a lot of them use language and suggest dieting techniques that are quite similar to what you get on pro-ana sites. For example, you get tips about colon cleansing, drinking lots of water to feel full, cutting your food up into tiny little pieces -- all stuff that gets promoted on various mainstream diet sites. Of course I figured that mainstream dieting sites would never be banned, but I thought it would be swell if there was a big argument about it that caused people to realize that dieting and disordered eating have more overlap between them than one might think. Fillyjonk over at Shapely Prose makes this point.

But on further reflection, my feelings about this thing are a bit more mixed. The French government has decided, based on published scientific reports and a widespread general consensus, that anorexia is unhealthy and often deadly. So they are going to prohibit people from having websites that tell people it's OK to be anorexic, that being ultra-thin is attractive, and give tips on how you can keep up your anorexia, including how to handle other people (like family members and doctors) when they accuse you of being anorexic and tell you it's unhealthy. But suppose that a government (say, the US government) decided that "obesity" is unhealthy and often deadly (check). Suppose then that they decided to prohibit people from having websites that tell people it's OK to be fat, that being fat is attractive, and give tips on how to recover from disordered eating ("dieting") and eat what you want when you're hungry even if that means you're going to stay fat, and tips on how to handle other people when they tell you how unhealthy and disgusting you are for being fat. That would mean that virtually every blog in the fatosphere would get banned.

So, I dunno, I'm feeling kind of torn about the ban... I feel like there's a big difference between pro-anorexia and fat acceptance, but when I try to come up with the specific differences, they break down. For example, contrary to popular belief, fat acceptance blogs generally aren't "pro-fat" per se. But then again, the pro-ana sites claim not to really be "pro-anorexia" either. They say they're just for people who are already anorexic and just looking for support from other people like them. Sounds like acceptance. And then there's the science -- I can say all I want (and I do truly believe this) that being fat has not been shown (in any credible studies not funded by the diet industry) to cause diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, etc. But in fact there is a close association between these disorders and some lifestyle choices that can also lead to weight gain, e.g., a high-calorie, high-fat diet and not enough exercise, so people are going to keep on believing that fat "causes" those diseases. I could imagine (though I haven't seen this) someone who's pro-anorexia trying to make similar arguments, like that it's not being super-thin that causes death, but rather fasting for too many days in a row, not getting enough vitamins, etc. I would be inclined not to buy such arguments, but then most of our society is inclined not to buy my arguments about fat. I could point to the fact that anorexia has a vastly higher death rate than "obesity", even if were to use the CDC's original wildly overstated numbers for "deaths caused by obesity" that they later had to retract because they were (at least) 14 times the actual number. But then I'd be reducing the whole thing to a matter of degrees, and I don't think that's quite the right thing either.

So I guess I'm kind of stumped at the moment. I haven't had a chance to read the comments on Shapely Prose or other places where people have blogged about this story, but maybe that will give me some ideas. In the mean time: your thoughts?


Fat Chick said...

Hmmm... banning fat-accepting websites.... Well, we could always take the example of online gambling sites and host our blogs on servers in Panama.

But seriously, I do see your point. For me, the whole issue boils down to this: I may disagree, and think someone is a complete ass, but I respect their right to say such stoopid things, because if someone stops them then where do we draw the line? Free speech and all that.

Unless, of course, that idiotspeek is in the comments section of my blog. Then I just delete it, because I am, you know, Supreme Ruler of Musings.

Anonymous said...

Do you think that the steadily rising cost of food will affect overweight/obese individuals..i.e...encourage them to lose weight? Additionally, do you think part of the disgust that some people feel towards the overweight/ obese is the moral implications of this physical state as while so many throughout the world are suffering from malnutrition and starvation?

Mary said...

Hi Anonymous,

In response to your first question: in a nutshell, no. Going on a diet in most cases requires spending more money, not less. I don't agree with those who try to reduce the "cause of obesity" to economic factors, but there is no denying that there is a strong correlation between poverty and fat. This may be because it is easy to get low-quality food for cheap (think McDonald's), though not all fat people eat a poor quality diet so this can't be the whole explanation for the correlation.

As for what triggers people's "disgust", who knows. Probably a lot of things. But if it's a comparison between fat people in the US vs. starving people elsewhere in the world, that is extremely naive for many obvious reasons: (1) if we ate less food in the US, the surplus couldn't just magically be distributed for free to people who needed it elsewhere; (2) a fat person doesn't necessarily eat more than a thin person; (3) even if fat people eat more food on average than thin people, you can't look at an individual person's body and know anything about their overall resource consumption because (a) they may drive a Hummer or ride a bike; (b) they may be a vegan or a carnivore; (c) they may have ten kids or none; etc. I could continue enumerating these arguments all day, but hopefully you get the point.

If I was going to be really snarky, I might say something like "What about the moral implications of imposing artificial starvation on yourself to lose weight for aesthetic reasons when people in other countries are dying of real starvation that they have no control over?" Oh, oops, I just said it.