Identity Construction on MyProAna: a Corporeal and Incorporeal Process
I ventured into the world of online Pro-Eating Disorder (ED) websites with a Google search for “pro-anorexia”. I had heard the controversies over the existence of these sites, with many pro-anorexia sites having been subject to bans and censorship since their emergence in the 1990s (Burke 2009). Currently, most social media platforms censor mentions of pro-anorexia and “thinspiration” (images meant to provoke weight-loss motivation). MyProAna (MPA) was the largest and most active pro-anorexia site I could find through my search. Some largely-read personal pro-ana blogs exist, but do not contain the same level of user interaction as MyProAna. On MPA, there is limited moderation and thus the site is largely user-formed. What initially interested me about this New Media platform was its ability to connect users globally into one online community, and to transform individual and normally-isolating ED experiences into shared community experiences. Because the site is user-formed – with users creating ‘threads’, posts, and comments about a great variety of user-decided topics – MPA proved to be an interesting arena of identity construction and negotiation. I came to see it as an arena where individual experiences and identities came together to be shaped by inter-user communication. It is impossible to paint the multitude of individual users with one broad brush-stroke – or, as this paper will discuss, even the multitude of sometimes-contradictory philosophies on the site – but I believe the process of identity-construction inevitably applies to all members just through exposure to peer communication. Through my research, this identity construction came about by individual subjectification into ED diagnostic categories, and subsequent exposure to what it meant to belong to a certain category, or what it meant to have an “eating disorder” in general. Perhaps the experience of identity formation is inevitable on any New Media platform which transforms an individual experience into a shared community experience – one that entails comparison, idea-sharing, hierarchies of belonging, new philosophies, and new ways of viewing the self.
I conducted my research through four interviews with frequent MPA users in addition to conducting observations of the site over a three-month period, collecting notes and screen-shots. I had member-status for one day when I posted a request to find interviewees, but otherwise had the limited non-member access to the site. This experience of limited access reflects the experience of many website visitors, as Pro-ED website visitors do not always join as members. I would argue, however, that non-members still absorb the information and identity-constructing properties of MPA that full members do. At the bottom of each page, a list of online guests, members, and anonymous users is given. The “guests” (or non-members) are usually equal to the amount of “members” on each given page. As a constant ‘guest’, I still felt very much involved in the discussions, as I was able to read inter-user communication and absorb the website content. I was barred from participation in chat rooms and participation-based threads (such as “competitions”), and therefore was barred from contributing to textual communication. I believe, however, that the identity-constructing properties and the subjectification process begin from the moment one clicks on the website and aligns themselves with a diagnosis category. The modes of identity construction such as comparison, idea-sharing, access to more knowledge, inclusion and exclusion, and more, were still accessible to me. In fact, even as a self-proclaimed outsider I was immediately categorized and aligned with an identity. “When will the normies stop bothering us for their research projects?” one person commented on my request for interviewees, along with many other defeating comments. Later I would realize that the status I’d taken on as “normie” in this world of categories meant that I’d aligned myself with the many researchers who had come before looking to ‘solve’ the issue of pro-ana sites. Involuntarily, I had even become subjectified. I had to edit my presentation to resist this identity, saying I was interested in ‘hearing people’s stories’, and ‘looking at the role of this website in your life’.
What is “pro-ana”?
Pro-ana (which on MPA seems to be a blanket term for all ED’s) implies an “anti-recovery” stance, and communication between users is predicated on the assumption that the ED is important for its sufferers. As Fox et al. (2005) described it, a ‘pro-ana’ space serves to “support its members through life problems, helping them manage the anorexia safely, without removing the crutch that it provides them” (963). Emma, my first interviewee, insisted that “if you want [an eating disorder], you shouldn’t be here”. A similar theme was echoed in most of my interviews, and is echoed across the site. In this way, pro-ana should stand to mean pro-anorectic, rather than pro-anorexia (Fox et al. 2005, 963): support for the individual going through the illness, rather than support for the illness itself. In fact, nearly everyone I spoke with had discovered the site in some sort of pursuit of health – or a pursuit of health within the parameters of an ED they were not ready to recover from yet. Malyutka, another interviewee, used the site primarily as a means for ED-related health advice, such as specific nutrient supplements, electrolyte replacements, and info on which foods were safe/unsafe to purge. Pro-ana, in this context, could mean “managing a dangerous disease with safety” (Overbeke 2008, 56) – assuming that users have the disease already and don’t desire recovery, yet strive to find support and connection and navigate the disease as safely as possible. This reflects MyProAna’s official statement on their home page – that it is a site “dedicated to the support or recovery of those suffering from eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorders”. Jackie, an interviewee who has lived with an eating disorder for more than fifteen years, has seen pro-ana websites emerge along with the internet itself and has seen them continue to grow. She calls this the “staying power” of Pro-ana. Looking into the emergence and growth of Pro-Ana throughout the years can point to many important factors: what kind of gaps do pro-ana sites fill in people’s lives? Is it a gap in ‘real life’ understanding (such as interviewees who only felt people within the illness could understand them)? A gap in treatment availability (such as an interviewee who had economic barriers to psychological counseling and thus used MPA as a support mechanism)? What is it about the “real life” contexts of ED’s that enable this website to exist almost as a necessity for its users?
These questions become more complicated when the issue of “pro-anorexia” (rather than pro-anorectics) is introduced. MPA seems to be divided between those who perceive ED’s as a noble and self-empowered choice, and those who see it as a circumstance which must be navigated. This is especially true in the Anorexia forums, where I argue the most complexities in identity-construction occur. All of my interviewees perceived a hierarchy to ED’s, with anorexia being the most “glorified”. This is true within anorexia forums as well, with the lower BMI’s and calorie-counts being the most looked-up to. It begs the question: if an ED is a product of circumstance and an entirely biological disease, how can one be better at having one? How can there be better anorexics? Then there is the further issue of “wannarexics”, or those who seek out anorexia. The lines between aspiration and biological condition – or the corporeal and incorporeal – are blurred. As people navigate their condition through the tools available on the website (access to knowledge and ideas, and characteristics associated with different disorders), their identities become shaped, including their perception of self, values, ideas, and aspirations. They enter into a subjectification process based on the original diagnostic categories (or even aspiration for diagnoses); and in this way, identities are built both at the level of the corporeal and incorporeal. Because of this ambiguity between cause and effect (is it biological? Is it aspirational?), pro-anorexia and pro-anorectic philosophies can exist alongside one another, and can even be perceived as mutually reinforcing.
Theoretical Outlooks: ‘Paradoxical Tension’, Embodiment, and Subjectification
Firstly, I’d like to further address the “paradoxical tension”, as Allendyke (2013) describes it, between eating disorders as an ‘aspirational lifestyle choice’ and a ‘biologically based serious mental illness’ (3). This tension lies at the base of pro-ana identity formation, as I have seen most people fit themselves within this paradox: between choosing to restrict calories, and recognizing this choice to do so as symptomatic of some larger issue. As I am most interested in exploring how the introduction of New Media into individual eating-disorder experiences can shape ED identities, this tension is important to navigate. It is clear, through speaking with my interviewees and conducting observations on MyProAna.com, that ED experiences online constantly exist within this tension. While much research has pointed to one as the cause and the other as the effect (such as studies which problematize pro-ana sites as a possible cause for an increase in ED behavior) (Custersy & Van den Bulck 2009), I instead argue that one does not precede the other, but rather that both sides are mutually reinforcing. Similarly, many on pro-ana sites assert the volition of their ED; it is a choice which demonstrates their will-power and self-control . I will further explore how this may be a reframing of the biologically-based ED into a positive identity. Yet the voluntary aspects of ED’s, which may indeed be heightened and shaped by the existence of New Media platforms, cannot be forgotten: as Allendyke argues, the incorporeal and virtual dimensions of the body must be acknowledged, as the ‘potential’ for ED’s is too often “obfuscated by the actual” (2013, 20). And this ‘potential’ is no doubt shaped by the dangerous aspects of Pro-Ana sites which are so deeply explored in previous cross-disciplinary literature. Thus, my goal is not to separate the corporeal and incorporeal, or suggest that one precedes or takes precedence the other. Instead, I begin this research with the assumption that MyProAna is space for people with a common disordered relationship to food (whether initially voluntary or not, but eventually a combination of the two) to engage in visual and textual communication, with a “lack of unifying philosophy” (Overbeke 2008, 57). It is a space for the incorporeal and corporeal to come together to construct a multitude of user identities, as users come to subjectify themselves based on these modes of communication.
In considering this identity construction as based on both the corporeal and incorporeal level, it is important to insert this text within theoretical debates about New Media as a place of disembodiment or embodiment. Embodiment plays a significant role in Pro-ED websites, as most communication involves body-talk, a term by Riley et al. (2008) for “text-based communication about bodies and bodily experiences” (348). Even when discussion isn’t centered on the body, most users employ a “signature” after their posts which state body statistics such as BMI’s and goal weights. Therefore, instead of this New Media platform as a space for users to be “freed from the social meanings and constraints associated with physical bodies” (349), communication is based at the level of the body. Identity construction is also based importantly at the level of the body, as users can become categorized by body weights, bodily habits, and physical food consumption. Calorie consumption, for example, could place users on a hierarchy where certain identities (as low, medium, or high ‘restrictors’) become glorified. Body weights in signatures could also value or devalue user stories, and could be used as a marker of legitimacy and right to belong there. Therefore, far from being a place of disembodiment, communication (and subsequent identity construction) is importantly embodied on MyProAna.
Although it is impossible to consider all individual experiences (and ‘potentials’) which led each user to find MyProAna.com, all users are subject to the same experience once they reach the homepage. Immediately, forums are divided by diagnosis: Anorexia Discussions, Bulimia Discussions, etc. It is interesting to see, therefore, how identification into a diagnostic category is almost a requirement for entrance into the site, and the plethora of particular diagnosis-related threads that follow. Those who do not immediately fit into a diagnostic category are instead categorized under “EDNOS”, or “Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified”, which is still in itself a category and still entails subjectification into a hierarchy – one that the individual ED sufferer may not have been aware of until faced with how they measure up against other ED’s (a hierarchal notion entirely produced by the website and interaction of users). Therefore, each individual user must take part in a subjectification process upon entering MyProAna, according to the diagnostic categories they fit themselves into, and this subjectification process follows users throughout their navigation of the site. How does one form an idea of the self as “anorexic” or “bulimic”, for example? How does one take on a medical diagnosis and then align themselves with an associated, community-formed identity? We can see the tension between the corporeal and incorporeal here again, as identity formation works through and beyond the diagnostic requirements. Yes, being anorexic may be medically characterized by “fasting and subsequent emaciation, in which body mass index (BMI) is less than 17.5” (Fox et al. 2005, 947) but the identity of the anorexic extends beyond this, and is negotiated through this user-formed communication. Beyond being underweight, an anorexic must drink large amounts of water, and eat no more than 1200 calories a day (the bottom of the restriction hierarchy), and doesn’t ever binge (because this aligns them with a new diagnostic category)… The list goes on, and extends to the non-corporeal aspects of “ana” – the expected philosophies and values of a “true ana”, which lead to some users being considered “fake” for not properly aligning themselves with ana philosophies.
Something especially interesting is the way in which even medical diagnosis doesn’t necessary qualify someone as a “true ana”. Giles (2006) quotes an informant who, upon receiving concrete medical diagnosis, doesn’t believe that she could be a ‘real’ anorexic because she isn’t ‘sick’ enough (470). The perceived inauthenticity of one’s diagnosis may derive from a feeling that the self isn’t yet aligned with the perfect diagnostic subject – the correct ED identity. In the same way, the hierarchies of ED’s can point to some ascribed moral value to each subject position. How has the subject of the anorexic become glorified over the subject of the binge-eater? How can hierarchies and ideas of authenticity be ascribed to something as seemingly black-and-white as a medical diagnosis? From this, it becomes clear that the subjectification process into ED identities is a process which is constantly socially negotiated. There is no end-point to reaching an ED identity – and not even a concrete medical diagnosis can serve as a definitive identity. The subject of the ED sufferer is constantly negotiated through online user communication on MPA.
Identity Construction in the Field
To illustrate the process of identity construction on MPA, I will refer to my field research which was composed of four interviews and months of visiting the website. Firstly, the issue of comparison to others was noted by all but one of my interviewees. Comparison can happen on a number of levels, such as: one’s goals, one’s weight, one’s BMI, and one’s body image. There are also comparisons based on ability to accomplish certain diets, and even a forum titled “Competitions” which blatantly encourages these forms of comparison. Comparison of philosophies is another issue which will be addressed further below: the type of comparison which ventures into the incorporeal, and allows for the distinctions between “true” and “fake” anas, as well as possibly allowing for the existence of ED hierarchies. Although I can only present a few examples here, as Emma (an interviewee) said: “comparison runs ramped on that site... And I think everyone compares themselves to everyone even if they don’t say it”. I argue that this inter-user comparison plays a large role in identity construction. It is through these comparisons that one can begin to align themselves with what it means to belong to a diagnostic category such as anorexia, bulimia, etc. It is important to note, however, that these are broad generalizations and it must be taken into account that each diagnostic category presents different modes of identity construction, and that some forums such as “General ED discussions” may trigger comparison to a much lesser degree. This is largely focused on anorexia, since two interviewees noted the anorexia forums as the most triggering for comparison. One venture into the anorexia forums and you immediately see posts such as “post your calories for today”, “I ate 200 calories today, what about you guys?”, “post your meals”, “I ate a hardboiled egg and yogurt today. Am I still ana?”, and much more. What it means to be a proper anorexic is then negotiated by interacting with these forums. This perhaps becomes most potent when looking at the hierarchies based on calorie-restriction – a notion entirely formed by user interaction and comparison on this site. As Emma informed me, 1200 is usually the “highest” calorie restriction and anywhere between 0-300 characterizes a “low” restrictor; “and the goal, I guess, is to get as low as possible”. Thus we see not only the forming of an anorexic subject, but the forming of different types of anorexic subjects – different identities and hierarchies attached to the initial diagnosis.
One reason I believe comparison “runs ramped” on MPA is because body talk is employed constantly by users. Many users post a signature at the end of their posts, which contains their weight, height, BMI, and goal weights. It can be framed, for example, like this…
Riley et. Al (2009) perceive signatures as a way to make an “identity claim demonstrating that she [has] a right to belong to the site” (353). This echoes the idea of ED authenticity (an idea which seems especially prevalent in anorexia forums), and a need to prove one’s legitimacy in aligning themselves with a diagnostic category. As Jackie (another interviewee) noted, two people could write the same stories but the one with the lower weight may be more taken seriously. She described the ED hierarchy as arranged by its associated weight – so that binge-eating is the lowest and anorexia (without binge/purge tendencies) is the highest. Although a multitude of factors may work together to form the ED hierarchies, one is the “[unnecessary] valuing of certain people’s eating disorders and not taking other people’s seriously” (Jackie) depending on the associated weight. In the same way, certain stories may be taken more seriously than others depending on the statistics posted in the signature. The weight-hierarchy seems to be acknowledged by all members of the site, regardless of diagnostic category. It is perceived as, according to Jackie, “a ladder you’re supposed to be climbing”. This brings into question the causes for these weight hierarchies – something which has become embodied but no doubt ventures into the realm of the incorporeal or aspirational. How has lower become better? Why is it that when Emma (who describes herself as having EDNOS) sees another user with a signature of ‘better’ goals, she asks herself: “why am I not reaching for the stars too here”?
Some scholars note the tendency for pro-ana spaces to align anorexia with the “notion of volition than with involuntary suffering and pathology” (Burke 2009, 62). In this way, the perfect “ana” subject is formed through choice and will-power. Of course, this is one train of thought in an online world of conflicting philosophies. ED hierarchies, however, may be formed based on some moral values attributed to each identity – such as ana’s restriction as “desirable and powerful” (Burke 2009, 64), or a “display of discipline and ultimately a triumph of the will” (Giles 2006, 468). Makoto, another interviewee, exemplifies this mindset. She perceives her weight as something to control and improve on, as an object which can be brought into perfection. Does this philosophy inevitably deem other forms of ED as lesser for not having the willpower to make this choice? This again enters into Allendyke’s paradoxical tension between aspiration and biological condition. Is the morality of ED identities contingent upon a choice that has been made? The prevalence of these ideologies amidst a site which interviewees call “mostly judgement-free” points to the multiple conflicting philosophies present on MPA. MPA is indeed a website of contradictions; the paradox of health within the parameters of an ED, the paradox of support/community while simultaneously judging/comparing, and the paradox of an interviewee acknowledging the weight-based-hierarchies present on the site – saying “nobody wants to be BED or bulimic” – while simultaneously acknowledging that it is a place where everyone understands that weight is only a symptom of the underlying problem. The multitude of contradictory philosophies makes MPA an especially interesting arena for identity-construction. As for lower being better, I wonder how much of this can be attributed to cultural contexts which tend to glorify lower weights over higher weights. Again, we return to Allendyke’s idea of ‘potential’; was the potential for this hierarchy and weight-comparison started long before users found MPA, formed in a larger cultural context? Perhaps the potential exists already, but is especially enacted in this online space where body-talk becomes the center of user interaction.
There are also the more obvious forms of comparison which work to shape an individual’s sense of self and identity as an ED sufferer. For example, one section of MPA titled “Gallery” allows users to post images of their bodies with user commentary. I decided to watch the comments thread on a photo of a particularly thin woman. I watched the comments range from “Ew” to “beautiful!” to “how can I become as skinny as you?”. Since identity construction and perception of the self is importantly focused on the corporeal on MPA, it becomes clear how an individual may begin to shape themselves based on this feedback. As a non-member, I was not able to access a thread called “competitions”. As Malyutka informed me, however, this thread consisted of a “leaderboard” in which users actively compared themselves to others based on points. Points were given to users based on the completion of challenges. One challenge may be “eat 800 calories, drink 6 cups of water, and exercise for one hour” for example. When beginning my research, I initially asked myself: how can one be a better anorexic? It is clear, however, how constant corporeal comparison can inform this idea. While all individuals may begin with a common disordered relationship with food, their arrangement into different subject categories and types of subjects becomes formed by inter-user communication (and subsequent comparison) on MPA. The incorporeal dimensions – which of course work hand-in-hand with the corporeal – cannot be ignored. This is also an arena of philosophy and value-sharing, which can arrange users as “true” ana subjects or “fake” ones. The identity category of “wannarexics” on pro-ana sites can attest to this: a term used for individuals who desire anorexia (Allendyke 2013), or see it as a “glorified diet” rather than acknowledging the “underlying malaise” which afflicts true anas (Fox et al. 2005, 957). Knowledge-sharing can also inform individuals about what it means to belong to a certain subject category. Malyutka, for example, had never heard of fasting until she reached MPA and found out that it was something anorexics tended to do.
Finally, one interesting aspect of the website that users employed was the ability to be “held accountable”. In fact, there is a forum on MPA titled “accountability”, where users can set up threads resembling a daily diary. Users can post meals, calories, progress, and more. Instead of self-surveillance (which can be done through personal calorie-trackers, for example), I think this new media platform introduces the idea of public surveillance. The same can be said for the goals on signatures, or the threads dedicated to posting user meals and calories. Why do users feel a need to engage in public surveillance? Is it for public recognition of legitimacy? Is it so that, through feedback, one can feel more authentically aligned with an identity (as in a photo one particularly thin girl posted, titled “fat fat fat”, receiving a multitude of compliments and assurances that she indeed isn’t fat – or indeed still fits well into the category of anorexic)? Is it to receive the benefits of peer pressure, in being held accountable daily? As the description for the forum states: “sometimes a little peer pressure helps”. What it exactly helps with is in question; perhaps it helps users
Many interviewees expressed concern for younger users, as they are more impressionable and may not acknowledge what they are doing to their bodies. The very website that could be causing them so much damage, however, was also deemed to be saving them from many other things in their lives (referring back to Fox et al.’s idea of an ED as a crutch). In Makoto’s moving account of her own journey through anorexia, she even ties her motivation for life to this site. As she says, “I feel connected and like a part of a community, and this makes me know that I don’t want to die, so it makes me want to eat a little bit rather than not eat at all”. Malyutka, another interviewee, both expressed concern for the younger users on the site and acknowledged the importance of this site to every user, saying “I wouldn’t want to take the community aspect away from these kids who feel like nobody in their life understands them”. Whether or not this is a damaging or beneficial site, however (as it is undeniably a paradoxical combination of the two), the greatest concern lies in the level of website exposure these young users have. Jackie, an interviewee who experienced an ED both with and without the internet, has seen a change in the presence Pro-ED sites take on in peoples’ lives, saying: “I think that’s the thing with the internet… when it was newer people considered it your ‘fake self’, but really if you’re spending 6 hours a day on there, it’s a huge part of you”.
This is what becomes most important to look at in the formation of ED identities. What happens to an individual ED experience once it encounters a new world of user communication? What happens when website usage becomes not just a decoration in someone’s life, but rather becomes a huge pillar in it? Many users centre their relationships and social interaction around this site, for example. As Overbeke (2008) warns: “it is dangerous for viewers to develop relationships based on eating disorders because relationships can play a major role in identity formation” (57). Similarly, Jackie worries that younger users (whose ED experiences have been especially entangled with online interaction) may refuse treatment or recovery because they would then need to leave MPA and lose their important social connections. Regardless of the beneficial or problematic nature of these sites, one thing is clear: they are now playing a massive role in individual ED experiences – informing the entire experience and identity of the individual user. This is especially true when considering the “potential” these sites also perpetrate – forming aspiring diagnoses rather than just feeding off of an already-existing mental illness. In other words, the boundaries between the real and the fake self are blurred; many cannot separate an ED experience from its community – just as the medical diagnosis cannot be separated from its associated community-informed identity.
I wish to elaborate more on the issue of aspiring diagnoses. This issue has caused conflict within pro-ana communities as it highlights a conflict in philosophies: is “ana” a choice, or is it an involuntary condition? “Wannarexics” blur this line. Nonetheless, it is still an important area of study as it highlights the incorporeal moral valuing of anorexia, and its mark on the corporeal realm of medical diagnosis. In some interpretations, this could point to the transformation of diagnosis as just another mark of legitimacy in the construction of an “ana” identity (Giles 2006, 475). I believe this issue also takes us to the core of the aspiration vs. biological condition paradox. In not forcing the idea of recovery on those who are not yet ready to recover, MPA benefits its often-misunderstood users. In the same vein, however, this “anti”-recovery stance makes room for mental illness to become framed as a lifestyle – to be part of an identity, and to become something looked-up to. Overbeke (2008) understands this notion of choice as a way of “transforming mental illness into an empowering way to view experiences of weight loss” (56). In other words: a reframing of the mental illness into moral ideas of self-discipline and control is a way to enact control over the “affliction that controls them”. Therefore, no one aspect (aspiration nor involuntary condition) precedes the other, but rather both can work through one another to reframe and make sense of one’s illness.
Moreover, it is this largely-unmonitored user communication around ED’s that informs how individuals come to see their bodily experiences, selves, and identities. Individual ED sufferers become subjectified through and beyond their diagnostic categories, occupying subject positions arranged in hierarchies, ascribed moral values, ascribed bodily behaviors, ascribed philosophies, and more. This is accomplished through user communication, such as comparison, knowledge-sharing, and peer-group forming. It is important to recognize the role that new media platforms have played in the construction of these ED identities – transforming individual ED experiences into a collective arena of communication and subsequent identity formation. The issue of aspiring diagnosis is particularly potent in highlighting the power of identity construction through these sites, since it complicates any incorporeal-corporeal ideas of causation. Rather, identities are worked through both the corporeal and incorporeal levels on MPA – as the social subjectification of the ED sufferer is enacted on his/her body, and as his/her body simultaneously becomes the location of identity construction. And in this way, the individual on MPA becomes the ultimate embodiment of this social communication process.
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