|Arresting Ana (2009)
In February of this year, Tumblr made news when it announced it would no longer host “self harm” sites–which promote anorexia or bulimia as a lifestyle choice, among other subjects–and would pop up a public service announcement (PSA) whenever someone searches for a keyword associated with self harm.
Recently I participated in a feminist film festival in which Arresting Ana
, a short documentary by Lucie Schwartz, was shown. Here’s a synopsis of the film:
Arresting Ana tells the story of the potential criminalization of the pro-anorexia movement in France. The film follows two women: Sarah, an 18-year-old college student with a ‘pro-Ana’ blog, an online forum on which she shares tips and tricks with other young women on how to become anorexic, and Valerie Boyer, a passionate legislator who is proposing a ground-breaking bill that aims to ban pro-Ana websites by issuing $30,000 fines and 2-year prison sentences to members of this online underground movement.
The film was made in 2009, and at the time of its completion the proposed bill had stalled in France’s legislature. The issue of censoring pro-ana sites is interesting and controversial for numerous reasons, I think. While Boyer’s intention with the bill seems good and particularly in the interests of young women, there are some major flaws to this kind of legal activism–which essentially criminalizes people who are suffering from a serious illness and expressing themselves in various ways online.
While I would stop short of defending someone who is instructing an audience on how to be a “better anorexic,” the free speech aspect–and the idea of criminalizing certain speech online–has serious ramifications. Though I agree with the idea that one person’s freedom ends when it impinges on another person’s freedom, I question whether pro-ana sites are actually harming or violating their readers’ freedom or personal liberty. Let me be clear: I am not in any way celebrating or defending self-harm sites; rather, they strike me as a cry for help, and maybe a manifestation of an illness, rather than criminal behavior. In the case of Tumblr, the free speech issue is largely avoided, since it is a private company, free to set its own terms of service. To me, this seems a more reasonable response in the battle against promoting self harm and eating disorders.
The question also arises as to why websites written and maintained by people suffering from eating disorders are being targeted at all. There are certainly sites on the web that are just as, if not more, harmful to people–sites that use hate speech, or promote hate or violence. Although I’m no expert, I haven’t heard about legislation–or even private companies’ terms of service–against anti-woman websites. Remember Facebook’s Occupy a Vagina
event page? In this context, it seems that young women’s freedom of expression is specifically being targeted–even if the subject is a harmful and even dangerous one. (Note: Men suffer from eating disorders too, and I’m not trying to minimize that; the film focuses entirely on young women.)
Fighting eating disorders is important work, and the fact that the subject is being discussed at all in France’s legislature is a good thing. However, criminalizing illness isn’t. Better reforms seem to be the ones directed at body image: banning excessive photoshop use in magazines and advertisements, requiring models to be at a healthy weight, and speaking out against body policing and shaming–whether it happens in media or in our private conversations.
Watch the trailer for Arresting Ana: