Neoliberalism, Pro-ana/mia Websites, and Pathologizing Women: Using Performance Ethnography to Challenge Psychocentrism

  • Nicole D Schott University of Toronto
  • Lauren Spring University of Toronto
  • Debra Langan Wilfrid Laurier University
Keywords: arts-based research, eating disorders, performance ethnography, pro-ana/mia, psychocentrism, social injustice, pathologization


Key terms such as “pro-ana,” “pro-anorexia,” and “pro-ED” are searched for on the Internet over 13 million times annually. These searches lead to web pages and social media sites where pro-anorexia and “pro-bulimia” (pro-ana/mia) contributors share weight-loss and exercise tips, “thinspiration” slogans, images and videos, and speak openly about their problems with eating and body image. In this article, we outline our initial research on online responses to pro-ana/mia, and describe how we used the data and analyses from this research to create a piece of research-informed theatre, or performance ethnography. The initial research identified a range of responses to pro-ana/mia that were aligned with either dominant or critical discourses on the causes of, and solutions for, pro-ana/mia. Our findings and analyses challenge media portrayals and medical approaches to pro-ana/mia phenomena, and support an alternative, critical analysis of how psychocentrism and neoliberalism foster social injustices for women and girls. Our work nurtures collective efforts to displace dominant ideologies and practices that have serious implications for the socio-cultural, economic, physical and mental health of women and their communities. 

Author Biographies

Nicole D Schott, University of Toronto
Nicole Schott completed her SSHRC funded M.A. in Criminology at Wilfrid Laurier University. For her Ph.D. at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, she is transforming her research on pro-anorexia into a play for social justice education, funded by the Ontario Graduate Scholarship and the Lupina Doctoral Fellowship from the Munk School of Global Affairs, U of T. She has publications in Media, Culture & Society; British Journal of Criminology; and Journal of Social Justice; and forthcoming in Technology Pedagogy and Education. 
Lauren Spring, University of Toronto

Lauren Spring holds an MA in International Development, a BFA in Theatre and Development, and completed studies at world renowned physical theatre conservatory L'ecole Jacques Le Coq in Paris, France. Lauren's master's thesis on trauma, humour, and resilience with tortured refugees was recognized with a Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada Scholarship (SSHRC) as well as an Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS). Lauren is currently a PhD candidate in the Adult Education and Community Development program at the University of Toronto where her research seeks to move military trauma out of the realm of psychiatry and into an Ernest Becker-informed, feminist and community-oriented framework. Past and forthcoming publications are in the areas of trauma, forced migration, anti-psychiatry, feminism, theatre and social change, masculinity and heroism, arts-based research and the role of aesthetics in transformative learning.  Lauren also works part-time in the Education department at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and is Creative Director of Extant Jesters Theatre. Of note for this particular project: As a teenager, Lauren was diagnosed with severe anorexia and hospitalized against her will for many months. 

Debra Langan, Wilfrid Laurier University

Dr. Debra Langan is an Associate Professor in Criminology, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario, Canada. Her research focuses on women in policing, gendered violence, families and intimate relations, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. While at York University, Dr. Langan received the University-Wide Full Time Faculty Teaching Award for her participatory research on transformative learning and teaching. Her most recent publications appear in Media, Culture & Society; Deviant Behaviour; Gender & Society; Applied Linguistics; and Feminist Criminology.


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Mental Health & Distress as a Social Justice Issue