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«Juliana de Souza RamosI; André de Faria Pereira NetoII; Marcos BagrichevskyIII I Fundação Oswaldo Cruz - Escola Nacional de Saúde Pública, Rua ...»

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Pro-anorexia Cultural Identity: The characteristics of

a lifestyle in a virtual community

Juliana de Souza RamosI; André de Faria Pereira NetoII; Marcos



Fundação Oswaldo Cruz - Escola Nacional de Saúde Pública, Rua

Leopoldo Bulhões, 1480 – Térreo. Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brasil. 21041-210



Fundação Oswaldo Cruz - Escola Nacional de Saúde Pública.


Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo.


Anorexia nervosa is a disease listed in the International Classification of Diseases. However, young pro-anorexics believe they are adopting a “lifestyle”. The aim of this paper is analyze the “cultural identity” of these youth, investigating a Brazilian Virtual Community. Virtual Ethnography was used methodologically in three “units of meaning” found in this community: the tension between anorexia as a disease versus anorexia as a lifestyle, the ideal of perfection and the meaning of belonging to the group.

The results suggest that pro-anorexia identity differs from the biomedical model. She admits that the thin body serves as reference for social recognition and economic success. In this sense, the online forums allow construction of identity based on anonymity. We conclude that studies of anorexic practices in Virtual communities should be encouraged because they contribute to understanding the universe of the adolescents and collaborate to promote policies and actions for their health.

Key-words: Anorexia; Adolescent Behavior; Webcasts as Topic and Internet.


Anorexia Nervosa is a disease described in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-10) as a “food disorder, characterized by intentional weight loss, induced and maintained by the patient” (WHO, 2008). This food disorder has practically doubled in the last 20 years, affecting mainly female teenagers and young women, between 10 to 19 years old (Dunker and Philippi, 2003). This scenery shows the importance of the topic in public health, and to develop actions related to teenagers’ health (Brasil, 2005).

According to Lira (2006), the increase in anorexic practice among female youngsters is part of a global movement facilitated, especially in the 90’s, by the use of the Internet. For Brotsky e Giles (2007), until then anorexics would rarely discuss their food disorders outside psychiatric or psychoanalytic clinics. Nowadays, there are thousands of Virtual communities in which people with repulsive reaction to food, who are interested in reducing or losing appetite, talk publically about the topic.

These communities are visited by teenagers and young women who see anorexia as a life style* and do not share the idea that it is a food disorder or a disease. Among their practices are long term fasting, auto-induced vomits and the use of medicine to lose weight. Anorexic girls find inthese virtual environments a new space to safely interact and share experiences, since their identities are not revealed (Gavin, Rodham & Poyer, 2008; Brotsky & Giles, 2007; Pereira, 2007 e Fox et al,2005).

What makes a person anorexic? How is his/her identity characterized?

Dubar (1997) defines identity as a dynamic and processual social construction which is related to a person’s history of life and refers to feelings of recognition, belonging and identification of an individual based on common features. This definition is useful to analyze social interactions mediated by the Internet where we can find Virtual communities, with public access, aimed at people who fear gaining weight excessively. In that case, the social construction of identity is developed through negotiations, which are permeated by feelings and expectations. The body’s cultural meaning and its social image have an important role in the construction of the identity of anorexic people. The view presented in this article admits that the body should not be considered only in biological terms. It is perceived as a cultural construction that can be interpreted and signified by different societies in different historical contexts, as analyzed by Mauss (2003).

Mauss (2003) offers an interesting reflection on this issue when the author analyzes the meaning given by a person to his/her body by means of negotiations with the social order, existing models and the use he/she makes of it. As far as pro-anas are concerned, the tension is between considering anorexia a disease or a life style. In that case, we can notice representations of what is reverenced or desired and what must be avoided or eliminated because it is considered to be harmful to health.

The objective of this study is to observe relations, processes and phenomena expressed in the speech of young women who participate in a virtual community aiming at identifying the universe of meanings, reasons, beliefs and attitudes that make them believe they have a different life style but are not sick.


* This study uses the concept of ‘life style’ as defined by Possas (1989). According to this author, ‘life style’ is translated as a specific social and cultural way of living, which is expressed in actions and behaviors such as practicing (or not practicing) sports, going on a diet, habits of consuming (or not consuming) tobacco or alcohol, among others.

There are several qualitative methods that may help to understand and gather relevant information in virtual communities. Among them, the emergence of a research method in cyberspace denominated online ethnography, virtual ethnography or netnography sticks out. This method was conceived to analyze communities that have established the relationship in electronic communities mediated by computers in the cyberspace as a routine. The virtual ethnography keeps some characteristics which are similar to the conventional (face-to-face) ethnography. First of all, it is important to emphasize that both of them study social groups trying to identify their nature and singularity. Participant observation and discourse analysis are some of the procedures adopted by both. In both cases, emphasis is on the point of view of the investigated community. The objective of virtual ethnography is to understand the meaning of behaviors and values put into practice virtually by a specific community. Thus, virtual ethnography makes use and assumes as its own some concepts that had been created to study cultures in a real or concrete territory. However, the concepts of conventional ethnography cannot be absorbed in an automatic way. Adaptations and analysis of possibilities as well as the limits of those adaptations to web designed research are needed. Virtual ethnography aims at decoding the human experience present in virtual communities in order to know the meanings and logic underlying the behaviors and values exposed.

Two authors seem to emerge in this field: Christine Hine (2005) and Robert

Kozinets (2004). He points out in his analysis that netnography:

[...] has been used in marketing and research on customer’s profile – an applied interdisciplinary field that is open because of the development and adoption of new techniques (Kozinets, 2010: 2).

–  –  –

The work of the virtual ethnographer is to observe, describe and participate in the environment that is being researched (Braga, 2006). This observation can be hidden.

–  –  –

The virtual ethnographic procedure used in this study was the “passive observation”. This article follows the ethnographic model adopted by Gavin, Rodham e Poyer (2008), which allows the researcher to observe the virtual community without identifying himself or interacting with its members; therefore, an observation called lurking† - this is a special kind of participation in which observation is the source of analysis of behavior and values (Braga, 2006). Using this model of observation, the ethnographer does not interfere in the process and preserves the exchange of messages among the members of virtual communities.

To carry out the research that resulted in this article, a pro-anorexia virtual community on the Orkut social network in Brazil was selected. This community was chosen, among others, because it was the one with most members when this observation took place (1,616 participants).

Observations were carried out from January to March, 2009. It was not necessary to get this virtual community’s users’ formal permission, since the community is of public domain and participants will remain anonymous.

The virtual community studied is called “Perfection is a 24- hour effort”. It was accessed using the key words “perfection/effort” and “anorexic”. These are some signals that suggest that its users search for practices to reduce or lose appetite. When this community was observed, it was subdivided into three segments: forums – in which the participants debate issues related to body, diets and food practices; polls – where any participant can ask a question about any subject, which is answered by the participants and presented statistically; and profiles – through which participants introduce themselves and where they place their photos.

When the observation was carried out, this community had 34 forums in total. For the present study, only six forums were chosen, totalizing 76 participants; 99% of them were female. The criterion used to select those forums was the same used by Gavin, Rodham & Poyer (2008): the most number of accesses in the period the research took place. The titles of the

selected forums include issues related to the topic of this article, such as:

“How can I reduce my thigh?”; “What does ‘to be perfect’ mean to you?”;

“I don’t know how to answer anymore”; “Girls, how tall, fat, old are you?”;

“Do vinegar and lemon help to lose weight or is it a myth?”. Although the participants do not call themselves anorexic, the titles of the forums suggest they are obsessed by losing weight and getting a perfect body – characteristics considered to belong to anorexic people. In fact, it is not a virtual community of young people who search for thinness. As it will be † This expression means “to lie in wait” in Portuguese.

analyzed later, they help one another and develop a number of behaviors aiming at getting the ideal body.

Forums where dialogs between the members of this virtual environment took place are the unit of analysis presented in this article. In order to use these forums as unit of analysis, they were read and excerpts that better represented the view of the participants relating anorexic practices to a life style rather than to a harmful practice to health were selected.

One of the great current intellectual challenges is associated with the discussion of cultural identity in times of globalization. In this sense, the work of Hall (1999) has become reference. The question seems to be the difficulty of thinking of the construction of cultural identity in relation to the production of otherness in a globalized world. Abandoning the essentialist conception of identity, Hall (1999) admits that the subject in post modernity (re)produces, represents and (re)signifies his cultural identity. Agier (2001) complements this view stating that the post modern ethnographer faces “cultural identities” as they are created; and does not find totally ready cultural identities, which he would only have to describe and catalog. In his understanding: the emergence of “cultural identities” in a context of globalization is accelerated by local situations (Agier, 2001: 7). These seem to be some useful macro concepts for the development of this study.

The excerpts selected in the following analysis show the existing tension between anorexia as a disease and anorexia as a life style. This article shows the pro-ana “cultural identity” (Agier, 2001) as something which is built in this dual structure. Based on this opposition, a set of expectations and procedures to have the perfect body as well as the feeling of belonging to the group are elaborated.

The selected excerpts were submitted to a thematic analysis in search of the principal “units of meaning” (Minayo, 2008). They join some central ideas of the social actors and reveal key moments of their existence. Thus, it constitutes a qualitative method. This investigation did not deal with quantitative variables. It did not worry about measuring the frequency of certain words or expressions. Its attention was not drawn to the identification of the presence or absence of a specific characteristic or message. It tried to go beyond pure description of quantitative techniques in order to get deeper interpretations based on inference.

Identification and analysis of “units of meaning” were useful for this study as they have contributed to understand what underlies the explicit contents, making it possible for us to go beyond what is explicit. The steps of this research were the following: identification of central ideas (“units of meaning”) of the users’ interventions; analysis of those ideas based on bibliographical production on the theme and determination of thematic areas; and discussion of the categories found.


Three “units of meaning” (Minayo, 2008) were identified. One refers to the existing tension between understanding anorexia as a disease in opposition to the idea of anorexia as a life style which implies dedication and sacrifice.

The other is related to the objectives expected to be reached with this life style: happiness and professional satisfaction. The third unit refers to feelings of belonging to this pro-ana virtual group, and is related to the security and freedom offered by anonymity. Together, these three “units of meaning” take part of the process of construction of pro-ana “cultural identity” (Agier, 2001) in this virtual community.


The first “unit of meaning” (Minayo, 2008), reflection on life style, seems to have a central place. In this view, the idea of associating the fact of losing weight with a disease seems to be condemned while the view of losing weight as an aesthetic need seems to be a healthful and desired practice. A

patient states that:

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