Dying to be thin

Ana wants to be your friend.

She makes great promises: she will make you feel good, she will give you peace.

She will introduce you to her other friends, and she has many. You may recognize some of their names. They’re important people, she says, famous, well known, well liked.

But not everyone likes Ana. They say she is dangerous: a thief, a murderer even.

Typing “pro-ana,” short for “pro-anorexia,” into a Google search engine will result in 8,550,000 hits. The spelling matters. Many of these sites treat anorexia not as a mental illness with several different causes, but as an actual friend. Similarly, bulimia becomes Mia. But this is not, necessarily, a unified cause. The term can have several different meanings. Pro-anorexia websites provide users with information about anorexia, and not just medical information, although some do.

Some claim to offer support. They also provide tips about how one can become, and stay, anorexic.

“Eat a piece of fruit–such as a slice of apple or banana each morning,” one site advises. According to the author, this prevents dizziness and fainting. But if that one slice of fruit isn’t enough, visitors can “just eat one piece of fruit [later in the day]. Otherwise, don’t eat anything.” Just a few mouse clicks away, users are reminded this website’s purpose is entertainment, and they should seek medical help if they have an eating disorder. Another site more generously encourages individuals to eat a whole fruit a day. But only after they’ve cut it into portions, eating them at mealtimes so the body thinks it’s had numerous meals.

Many include photos, mostly of celebrities, to act as “thinspirations” – motivations to help lose weight. And then there are the slogans: “Ask me to show you perfect and I will show you a thin person. Starving is an example of excellent willpower,” reads the site that permits one to eat a whole fruit daily. A few lines later, “An imperfect body reflects an imperfect person.”

These pages may be easily dismissed if they were simply collages of celebrity photos and individual tips. But they become communities. Many provide places where people discuss their eating disorders. In some cases, the sites claim these forums support recovery. Others say they aim simply to support individuals with eating disorders, seeking recovery or not. Many see eating disorders not as a mental illness – although they may provide personal details of their own experiences with such illnesses. Instead they see it as a lifestyle choice. As Angela Ross, a former user of these sites from New Mexico who currently lives in North Carolina, put it in an email, “People essentially give their lives for anorexia.”

And now she, and others are giving their lives to preventing the disease. Sharon Hodgson, an artist from Nova Scotia, used pro-ana sites as a tool to lose weight, and learn “secret, hidden knowledge.” The tips worked. “You can learn a lot of negative things to do to yourself,” she said in a phone interview.

Hodgson used several sites, and was a moderator on different groups. She met individuals who would become well known for running pro-ana sites. She made friends and became aware that these people she cared about were “believing such terrible things about themselves that I knew wasn’t true.”

Hodgson, who herself had a predisposition to eating disorders from a young age, left. She’s never returned. In May 2006, she started We Bite Back, a website devoted to helping individuals recover from anorexia and other eating disorders.

For her, starting the site was a way to recover, and provide a “network where people are going to encourage each other.”

Since then, the site has grown to over 4000 members from 80 countries. Beyond the forum – Hodgson says about 600 computers log onto the site a day, some staying for several hours – it also holds essays about recovery and links to several other sites.

Hodgson believes communities like We Bite Back are crucial for helping people recover. She funds the website entirely on her own, though some members occasionally donate. But that power of community makes pro-ana sites so dangerous, and hard to control or monitor. The sites encourage a group mentality that already reinforces what those with eating disorders may already believe to be true, continuing a vicious cycle. Many find homes on free third-party sites, like Facebook or Livejournal. Several pro-ana sites and blogs have been shut down.

But, because as Hodson notes, these sites are “network[s] based on people,” the sites will just pop up again, with new names but the same message: thinner is better.

While eating disorders aren’t new, the Internet provides new ways of encouraging the behaviour – and recovery. Ross, now 21, was 14 when she first typed “anorexia” into a Google search bar. The first site that came up was pro-ana.

Ross wanted to lose as much weight as possible in the shortest amount of time.

The sites helped. She became “immersed.” Eventually, she grew to hate the sites.

In November 2006, she started a Facebook group to encourage those recovering from eating disorders, and to raise awareness about the sites. It now boasts over 4000 members.

Ross sees pro-ana sites as “a new generation’s version of anorexia.” And while eating disorders pre-date the Internet, the medium makes it look different. Not only are there pictures like the ones in fashion magazines, there are step-by-step tutorials about how to look like the models. And many websites, unlike magazines, aren’t explicitly selling anything. The creators actually want people to look like the models because they believe it’s good. As Sonya Lipczynska noted in The Journal of Mental Health, “What is clear is that the Internet…has allowed a new subculture of eating disorders to develop, with its own rules and creeds, its very own deities and language which allows devotees to disguise their conversations about their disorders and perhaps feel part of a community which fully embraces them and their choices.”

Regardless of the medium, the basic lie – that one must look good to be valuable – remains the same, as does the solution.

“If you believe that you can recover, your brain will make a way for it to happen,” says Hodgson. “If you believe you can’t change, your brain won’t bother.”

And to do that, one needs real support – whether online, or even in person. But just not with Ana.

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