Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The New Myspace? The deadly rise of Pro Ana websites.

Casually browsing the internet looking for my next hot purchase from Ebay, I happen to stumble across at first glance a seemingly innocent site. Not unlike the social networking sites like Myspace where pretty young girls share their thoughts and feelings, posting up pictures of themselves posing, this site at first seems no different.

However, this is a site with a difference. The young girls are not happy and healthy, chatting merrily with their friends. They are suffering from a serious eating disorder: Anorexia Nervosa.
Anorexia has always been around; a deadly eating disorder that has taken many lives, it has a higher mortality rate than any other psychological disorder taking 50,000 individuals lives per year. It is thought that 7 Million girls and women suffer with an eating disorder, however experts can never be sure as many will never admit to having the disorder.

In an appearance obsessed society, where looks are the most important thing the mantra “thin is beautiful” is continually emphasized in the media. Constant images of abnormally thin models dominate, creating an unrealistic body expectation for young teens. It has been found that 61% of young women feel inadequate compared to the media’s image of beautiful women.
The “skinny” look is in, according to a recent study, over 1/2 the females between the ages of 18-25 would prefer to be run over by a truck then be fat, and 2/3 surveyed would rather be mean or stupid. Glamorized by celebrities such as Kate Moss who was criticised for stating “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” our society is a dangerous place for those with an eating disorder.

It was only a matter of time until the skeletal images from women’s magazines progressed to the web. The rise in popularity of blogging and social networking sites sparked a new and deadly trend: Pro Ana websites.
The first influx of Pro Ana sites hit the internet in 2001. Termed as the first wave of Pro Ana sites, they were designed to help fellow anorexia sufferers reach out to each other. Whilst before anorexia was a taboo subject, Pro Ana sites propelled anorexia into the spotlight, providing an “Ana” community for young sufferers to share what they were going through with each other.
PrettyThin, a Pro Ana website is a place where young girls can make friends with fellow sufferers; it is where they feel accepted and supported. Several members state it has “saved their life”, that they would not know what to do without it. As a one member Dollface states, when she is on the site she feels she is not alone, that people understand her.

“Sometimes when i'm on this site it just hits me, i can't believe there is a place where i can come and talk about my eating disorder; openly and honestly. it's amazing, and i am so glad this site is here for me to have as a safe haven. i feel understood. when i look at a comment on a post and its exactly how i am feeling or thinking i am just blown away at the realization that i am not alone. thank you pretty thin. <3>

False support.

However, whilst this seems positive that girls or boys for that matter can openly talk about their disorder. The website shockingly does not offer support for sufferers to recover; rather they encourage the girls to “stay strong”, to “keep motivated”, providing tips and tricks on how to in one case hide the symptoms of the illness.

“At a certain weight, which is different for everyone, you will lose your period. This is a good thing because it means that you’re losing weight…..Don’t let your mother find out about your lost period because she will most likely take you to the doctor. Never under any circumstances tell a doctor that you’ve lost your period. They will have you in an eating disorder clinic faster than you can say "What the hell?"

As the health professional body (NEDA) The National Disorders Association says Pro Ana sites ultimately provide a false support system that instead of provide treatment and help to recover, encourage the girls to carry on with the illness.

“These sites provide no useful information on treatment but instead encourage and falsely support those who, sadly, are ill but do not seek help."

Young teens, as like with other social networking sites, become hooked, they look to Pro Ana sites for a source of “support” where others will not criticise their eating disorder, but will help and encourage the individual to “achieve their goals”. As one member of PrettyThin says,

“I start every day by checking out the forums to keep me motivated. I never walk away from the computer after checking up on PT feeling sad... Everyone is kind and really helpful. Not only has PT helped me lose weight and achieve my goals, the people on it are all wonderfully supportive”

An unhealthy Community.

Pro Ana sites like PrettyThin are ultimately destructive as whilst they can talk to others with the same condition, this results in the girls sharing tips and tricks on how to loose weight. As Health professionals the National association of Anorexia Nervosa and Assiotated disorders (ANAD) argue whilst at first it provides a community for sufferers to feel understood and not so alone, it is ultimately is an unhealthy community that,

“Creates the opportunity to compare to more and more dangerous methods of weight loss, and increase the drive and interest, and increase the severity and frequency of eating disorders behaviours.”

The chat forums are dangerous for young teens suffering from the disorder as the girls encourage each other to “reach their goals”. As one member Empty Eyes found when she stumbled across PrettyThin whilst researching for a university project.
She initially had bulimia; however by joining the site she states how by merely hearing the tips and tricks “helped” her become a complete anorexic.

“It just helped get me past being bulimic and began to help me to decrease my intake just by hearing tips, and having other girls support me in general…. Over a course of four months I ended up loosing lots of weight and became completely anorexic”.

This depicts how Pro Ana sites are a negative influence as they intensify existent eating disorders. Empty Eyes shockingly posts how she “never thought she could do it” (become anorexic) until going on the site.

I never thought I could do it and this site helped me to feel accomplished with other girls almost "cheering me on".

The girls shockingly spur each other on to loose weight, either through the chat forums, discussion areas or blog posts. Whilst in some cases it is positive as the girls can discuss painful situations they are going through, it is dangerous as they share and compare dieting tricks, often providing new ideas for the members. One member of PrettyThin shockingly posts a dangerous fasting diet she is going to undertake, and asks if anyone wants to join for support. One response states,

“I’l join we can be diet buddies, it would be nice to have support”.

Glamorization of a serious Illness.

Not only does this normalize the illness; undermining the dangers of Anorexia but it in turn glamorizes the illness turning it into a mere lifestyle choice, chosen by the individual because it is seen as “cool” and suits their interests. Radical Pro Ana sites such as PrettyThin have been criticised for glamorizing anorexia as a cool, lifestyle option, as it states it is a site “for those choosing to take the Ana lifestyle upon themselves”.
This according to the Academy of eating disorders plays directly to the psychology of victims as those who have the disorder deny they have the illness but claim it is their “choice”, it is a “lifestyle” that they choose to adopt.

“One of the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa is denial of the seriousness of the illness; thus websites that glorify anorexia as a lifestyle choice play directly to the psychology of its victims.”

The glamorization of anorexia by pro- ana sites is ultimately dangerous as not only undermine the dangers of a serious illness, but it turns a deadly mental disorder into a fashionable lifestyle statement. As in recent years there has been a rise in what is termed “Wannarexics”, individuals who choose and seek out to be anorexic, because it is now seen as “cool”. They hope to learn “how” to be anorexic via Pro Ana sites, picking up tips and encouragement from others to stay skinny.
This angers first wavers of the Pro Ana movement who claim “Wannarexics” are “probably sicker than the person who has the real eating disorder” as they are happy to be anorexic, they want and choose to have the disorder. Karen, a sufferer of anorexia and founder of first wave Pro Ana site argues this trivialises anorexia from a serious mental disorder to some fad diet chosen by the individual. As she claims “wanna’s”,

“seek consciously to become anorexic. They don anorexia because it is stylish. They “usually think [anorexia is] cool, it’s the thing, it’s a fad diet but it’s not.”

Karen argues ultimately “Wanna’s” fulfil society’s expectations that anorexia is something feigned, something that the individual can just choose to don because it suits their interests.
“They assume it’s feigned,” she says. “They think, ‘Oh, just eat the sandwich.’ And it’s not that easy.” She says how anorexia is not something you choose to one day simply have, but is a way of dealing with pain. Speaking from her own experience she found anorexia met her needs, it was a means of coping with her suffering.

“ I hated myself so much I would so anything to get rid of myself. So controlling my weight emerged as a way to deal with self- hate, pain, and in some measure to make life bearable”.

Second wave sites like Pretty Thin are often more dangerous than the original Pro Ana sites as they undermine the dangers of an eating disorder like Anorexia Nervosa, as the Academy for eating disorders (AED) says

“The Web sites pose a danger in that they promote anorexia nervosa as a lifestyle, provide support and encouragement to engage in health threatening behaviours, and neglect the serious consequences of starvation.”

The look: “Thinspiration”

Pro Ana sites like PrettyThin turn anorexia into an attractive “cool” look for girls to aspire to. Whilst the “skinny” look is already glamorized by celebrities in magazines, the sites similarly post up images of emancipated celebs as an act of “inspiration” for Anorexic sufferers.
Coined “thinspiration”, it is a common trait of Pro Ana sites, who often post pictures of shockingly thin celebrities and runway models. Pro Ana website Pro Thin Spo claims it has the largest selection of “Thinspiration” in the world and shockingly states it is the “Queen of the starvation scene!”; posting numerous shocking images of gaunt young women from the skinniest runway models to categories merely titled “Bones”.

PrettyThin takes this one step further, by asking members to post up pictures of themselves on the site. They have a feature of “picture of the week” and “hall of fame” in which girls pictures are chosen on the pretense because of their “artistic quality” or having a “cute theme”. The images are all of scantily clad young girls, some only wearing underwear with bones visibly protruding from their emancipated bodies. One image that is deeply shocking is of a girl lying down with their rib cage visibly jutting out. The comment exclaims what a beautiful shot of beauty this is, how it has “great lighting, great focus, great pose”!
This not only provides inspiration for the girls to loose weight, but instills competition between members for who has the skinniest body. The website seems to applaud those who are skinny, placing them in the “hall of fame”.

PrettyThin turns anorexia into a fashion statement, a certain way of beauty that others may not understand. They hide under the guise of “beauty”, claiming they are not a Pro Ana website but are about “beauty in our eyes”. This could be because many Pro Ana sites are being shut down; therefore Prettythin is changing its tactics to avoid the same fate.

However, sites like PrettyThin are ultimately more dangerous for young girls as not only do they normalize, but glamorize a serious life- threatening mental disorder into a mere fashion statement. As PrettyThin whilst it has the usual thinspiration pictures, has sections of “Bitchspo” and “Scenespo” pictures where skinny young girls either rock the alternative look, or take on a feisty “you suck” persona. This makes “thinspiration” images more fun, attractive and essentially relatable for young teens. However, this is ultimately worrying as under the guise of beauty and expressing yourself, it turns worrying anorexic images into something cool and artistic. The slang of “Btichspo” and “Thinspo” also is used to target the vulnerable young teens. Found on many Pro Ana sites the terms, ED, Thinso, Ana, Ana-mia create a sense of cool for anorexics. They are terms for only those “in the know” and ulitmately glamourize and take away the serious meaning of the terms. The health professionals Bodwhys (the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland) note that pro-ana sites,

encourages obsessive ness and minimisation of the seriousness of these potentially deadly disorders.”

To ban or not to ban? A complex Issue.

The simple answer would be to ban all Pro Ana sites, however this is more difficult than it seems. Whilst service engines Yahoo and Geocities reguarly shut down Pro Ana sites, as soon as they do a new site pops up in its place. There are more than 500 Pro Ana/Mia sites out there and it is proving difficult to control. There are so many out there, and sometimes it often hard to tell the difference between supportive recovery sites and those that are Pro Ana, as a spokesperson for Myspace says it is “often very tricky to distinguish between support groups for users who are suffering from eating disorders and groups that might be termed as “pro” anorexia or bulmia”. Like PrettyThin, they often take steps to conceal themselves claiming they are not Pro Ana, but are neutral or recovery sites. Also they become private, so only members can see the full content; making it extremely difficult for moderators to shut down sites.

Whilst there has been numerous campaigns for the government to take action and clamp down on Pro Ana sites; with talk of banning all sites and plans to introduce laws that fines or jails the owner of the Pro Ana site. Beat the eating disorder charity argue it is not the answer, as it would not solve the root causes of the problem.
They argue by banning the sites the government would be taking away the only refuge young sufferers have. “People who use these awful sites tell us it can be the only place where they feel understood, accepted and not judged” it would be taking away the only support the young teens have. Therefore they call for not a complete outlaw of the sites, but to regulate and provide more support online.
Essentially whilst many argue Pro Ana sites are dangerous, they alone do not cause eating disorders like Anorexia. Charities like Beat recongise that the root problem is in fact within society. A lack of understanding causes the young teens to search for acceptance within Pro Ana sites. They state that if there was a general understanding from everyone, sufferers would not need to seek Pro Ana websites for refuge.

"We are calling on everyone to provide that understanding, so that a pro-ana site is no longer the only refuge."

Cause of Anorexia? We need to look closer at society…

It may be easy to blame Pro Ana sites for the increasing deaths of Anorexia. However that is the easy option out, we need to look closer at our society at large until we can truly blame Pro Ana for the cause of eating disorders like Anorexia. Everywhere we turn thin, beautiful images of women are drummed into us. The cultural ideal of female beauty is instilled in us from a range of media, glamorized by stick thin celebrities in magazines to skeletal size zero models on the runways we are constantly told: thin is beautiful. It is a minefield for vulnerable young teens insecure about their body image. Therefore until society changes, anorexia will continue to exist and will keep killing young girl’s lives.
If you need help…..

If you are suffering from an eating disorder, or know someone who is please find support and information to help overcome the illness.

Telephone the Supportline Helpline for confidential emotional support on any issue. It also keeps details of other agencies, support groups and counsellors throughout the UK.
Call 01708 765200, or email
For support, advice, information and befriending to sufferers to families. Anorexia and Bulimia care can put parents of sufferers in contact with other parents of sufferers. Call 01462 423351 or see
For Information on eating disorders including diagnosis, signs, causes, risks and treatments. Visit
Visit a recovery site like Something fishy which includes support forums, information and help for parents and carers.

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