Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Anorexia and the Cult of 'Ana'

Please see this article, Cult-Like Lure of ‘Ana’ Attracts Anorexics, written by Martha Irvine of Associated Press.

Quoting from this story:
They call her “Ana.” She is a role model to some, a goddess to others, — the subject of drawings, prayers and even a creed. She tells them what to eat and mocks them when they don't lose weight. And yet, while she is a very real presence in the lives of many of her followers, she exists only in their minds.

Ana is short for anorexia, and — to the alarm of experts — many who suffer from the potentially fatal eating disorder are part of an underground movement that promotes self-starvation and, in some cases, has an almost cult-like appeal.
There are large number of web sites which promote the anorexia nervosa lifestyle to the point of making it either a cultus for the spiritually-minded girl or an oppressed class in the Marxist sense. In these cases, this ‘lifestyle-choice’ becomes reinforced by positive feedback. This can generally be called the “Pro-ana” movement. Pro-ana is seen as an empowering lifestyle choice by those who have anorexia but do not want to recover; they accuse society of giving them the disease, but do not want a cure, some even to the point of death. Anorexia versus Recovery is seen as a personal choice. Someone versed in deconstructive philosophy or Marxist critical analysis could perhaps see this movement as some sort of leftist wedge issue and could explain it further from that point of view, but I think it goes far deeper than mere politics; the problem is spiritual.

The Pro-ana even personalize anorexia nervosa as ‘Ana’, a girl's only friend. ‘Ana’ is the only person who will tell a girl that she is fat and that she must take drastic measures to become thin. ‘Ana’ even tells us that she is a deceiver: she will distort the image a girl sees in the mirror as “obesity and hideousness” instead of a “starving child”. ‘Ana’ is an accuser, calling the girl a cow, wracking her mind with guilt over any food eaten. ‘Ana’ says that she alone can relieve a girl of her anger, depression, and loneliness, and that a girl must never tell anyone about her anorexia or seek help.

An accusing deceiver who says you can't be helped. That sounds like Satan to me. Embracing sin, or at least embracing a deep flaw that you know is a sin or flaw is the definition of vice. We are in the midst of Spiritual Warfare, and Anorexia is one of the battles.

Some people think that our culture of youth and sex is partly to blame for the explosion of anorexia in our times; Pro-ana groups say that this is only half-true, since most all of us are exposed to this culture, while only a fraction develop the disease. Likewise, only a certain fraction of those who drink alcohol will become alcoholics. However, upon viewing numerous ‘Pro-ana’ websites, it does seem that there is great emulation and idolatry of thin fashion models and actresses, with the women being held up as role models. But there is something else that is missed by those who study anorexia: these women are admired because they are rich, beautiful, and have many male admirers as well as being thin. So desire is one of the root causes or sustainers of this problem.

There is a sign or symbol of this Pro-ana movement: a red bracelet. This is a sort of ‘secret handshake’ between thin young women, giving anorexics the ability to recognize each other. The most popular version of the bracelet is braided and of three strands, with red beads and silvery stars. Bracelets of similar designs but of different colors are also made: purple for bulimia, and black for self-injury or depression; other colors include orange for recovery, and yellow for hope. These disorders are rightly grouped together: anorexia is often classified as dangerous due to its high death toll; but these deaths are often suicide from depression. The bulimic's self-purgation is found among anorexics, painful vomiting or laxitives being seen as punishments for overeating.

Eating disorders seem to predominate in times of wealth and education; most anorexics today are intelligent, well-educated young women on their way to college. The disease was originally identified in the late 19th century, a time of great prosperity and education — and also a time of great spiritual poverty. A proto-anorexia was seen in the antiquity of ancient Greece after the fall of the self-governing polis and the establishment of Empire.

There are animal models dealing with eating disorders. Animals with limited diets and unlimited exercise opportunities usually die of starvation, while animals with limited diets and little exercise will be healthy, but thin. Likewise, animals with plentiful food and exercise are healthy, while those with plentiful food and little exercise become degenerate. Our human nature is between the animals and the angels, so we can turn to spiritual help.

Anorexics are perfectionists; anorexia may be a type of scrupulosity, since they feel that having a healthy body weight is actually bad. Scrupulosity is a habitual state of mind where “an unfounded apprehension and consequently unwarranted fear that something is a sin which, as a matter of fact, is not.” Advice given in the Catholic Encyclopedia article on scruples is that “they are to guard against the reading of ascetical books of a rigorist trend and any intercourse with those afflicted in the same way as themselves,” which is directly contradicted by the behavior of those in the Pro-ana movement. Also, scrupulous persons need an extraordinary spiritual director; the Church sees this as a very serious problem.

Elsewhere I have written that fasting is a good spiritual practice, and it most certainly is for those of us who tend to gluttony, but discretion is needed. In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Saint Antony writes “Some wear out their bodies by fasting; because they have no discretion this only puts them further away from God.” Whether to fast or not, or how to fast or how often, is a matter requiring great wisdom; canon law and the ascetic Fathers recognize this. Fasting for ‘Ana’ is certainly a grave sin.

Many anti-anorexia sources are rationalistic and scientific, and attempt to discourage anorexia due to health concerns. But Pro-ana girls already know this and even embrace these health problems as part of goal of thinness, even to death. Most of the rationalistic anti-anorexia sources are strictly materialistic, and reject religion as a solution. The Pro-ana girls have invented their own spirituality, a “Starving for Perfection” or “Salvation Through Starvation,” while the anti-anorexia forces do not at all address the girls' spiritual needs.

We are at war. This is a problem that has been left to secular psychologists, but they have failed to solve it since they do not know the cause. We need saints in the world who will fight this new kind of scrupulosity with faith.

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