Dualism, Objectification and Gazing: A Philosophical View on Why Pro-Ana Blogs are so Succesful

On: October 18, 2006
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About Jeff van Schie
Founder and managing director of Fix Nieuwe Media BV. Became an official Master of New Media in Octobre 2007.


descartes.jpegWhy are there so many pro-ana blogs? What makes them so attractive to people who suffer from anorexia nervosa? I would like to make clear that this post is not going to answer these big questions, but I will try to offer an interesting view on some of the philosophical developments that have had influence on the phenomenon.

Ever since the days of Plato and Aristotle has Western philosophy tried to find an explanation for the relation between mind and matter. 17th century French Philosopher René Descartes was the first to make a clear distinction between the mind, with its consciousness and self-awareness, and the physical body, describing the brain as a ‘seat of intelligence’. By separating the body from the soul it became possible to look at the body as seperate from the individual. It was, and sometimes still is, common practice in the medical world to look at the body as an object which is separate from the person. This separation and objectification of the body by medical professionals is described by Michel Foucault as the Medical Gaze in his book “The Birth of a Clinic” (1963). He explains that by reducing a person to his or her body the Medical Gaze removes a person’s humanity. Although the medical world has pretty much moved on from this pure biological reductionism to a combination of biology and psychiatry, the viewing of the body as an object is now part of the way we look at ourselves. People with anorexia have difficulty looking at themselves as a person, because they don’t like what they see and it makes them feel powerless. They take their body as their object of focus as it is something they do have control over and can work on.

The Medical Gaze is focused on the gaze in the medical profession, but the term Gaze can be applied in many ways, for instance in the Male Gaze (in Feminist studies), meaning the way women are always looked at by men, making women the passive subject. Another example is the Panoptic Gaze, based on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a prison where an observer can observe all prisoners at once, without the prisoners knowing if they are being watched. The Panoptic Gaze is strongly connected to contemparary ideas on surveillance, displaying the fact that institutions like the police, the government or the medical world are constantly watching us without us knowing if we’re being watched.

One of the known features of anorexia nervosa is that those who suffer from it don’t want their environment to notice it. In a world where we are constantly being watched by our family, friends, teachers, neighbours, government, police, etc., it is extremely difficult to hide the fact that you’re not eating and your body is getting thinner. In this light pro-ana blogs are a place where people who have anorexia can openly talk about their life without getting caught as they can be anonymous and are not personally within the reach of the several “gazes”. An important part of pro-ana blogs are the “tips&tricks” sections where visitors can learn how to keep their habits secret in the physical world. anorexia is all about controlling the body, the self and ultimately life and keeping their “not eating” a secret is another way to feel in control of the situation. People who suffer from anorexia can be experts in being secret, even when they are in a hospital, as is shown in the next example:

“All meals, showers and toileting were carefully supervised. Despite this level of surveillance, many of my interviewees, who had been institutionalised under such a regime, boasted of their ability to dispose of food or to exercise undetected. In one instance the ‘patient’was able to deposit much of the food presented to her into the hollow steel tubular bed head, even while under the eagle eye of the nurse who supervised her eating. The hiding place was only detected weeks later when foul smells emanated from her room.” (http://www.academyanalyticarts.org/eckerman.htm)

To keep a secret while you’re being watched is to have control, and this is the key to the succes of pro-ana blogs. By openly discussing their so called lifestyle they are both reaching out to others so they don’t feel alone and they are openly rebelling knowing they are being watched, but that they are in control of what the watcher gets to see. They expand their realm of control from the physical place of the body to the virtual space of Blogs.

(This article is also posted on Jeffrey van Schie’s MA Blog)

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