Looking for "thinspiration": pro-anorexia movement flourishes online
Wed Jul 21, 2004
by Hayley Mick
VANCOUVER (CP) - Type "pro-ana" into any Internet search engine and you'll get a disturbing glimpse into a deadly obsession with thin.
There are websites with names like Beautiful Bones and Anorexic Web. Also "thinspiration" photo galleries of waif-thin models and famous celebrities with eating disorders like Mary-Kate Olsen and Karen Carpenter. And discussion groups where apple-only diets are earnestly promoted and members sign off with tags that include their body weight. The groups have their own lingo, like "laxies" for laxatives, "mia" for bulimia and "ana" for anorexic.
"I feel like a big fat whore, my stupid boyfriend drives me nuts with his encouraging me to eat. I keep bouncing back from over and under 90 (pounds), I just want to get to 80 already!!" writes a message board member.
This is the online world of "pro-ED" (for pro-eating disorders) - hundreds of websites and discussion groups created and used by people who say they have the disorders.
And according to health professionals and educators, it's a subculture so pervasive and under the radar that it's hijacking prevention and recovery efforts, and helping eating disorders to spread.
"They're looking for tricks of the trade and how to maintain the lowest weight possible without dying," says Lauren Goldhammer, a therapist at Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, which has a residential treatment program for people with eating disorders.
"They're starving. And how do they keep going? They need some more encouragement, and I think those websites help them in that sense."
But the online world means more than that, according to those who frequent it.
Nancy Tewfik spent four months monitoring pro-eating disorder message boards as a psychology student at the University of Toronto. She also interviewed 12 young women about why they spent time on them.
Some said the sites helped them combat loneliness and feelings of isolation. Others claimed they weren't doing anything wrong and their eating disorder was a "lifestyle choice."
Ultimately, she says, what they got from the groups was a circle of friends.
"It's people that understand them. It's people that accept them as they are," she says.
But many professionals worry that the Internet is making it easier than ever for people to swap techniques on how to starve themselves - and keep it hidden.
The websites range in tone from self-loathing to defiance - but there are many similarities: tips on how to lose weight, tricks for inducing vomiting, what foods purge the easiest, how to avoid detection, "thinspiration" photos and quotes and message boards.
At one site, there's a flurry of enthusiastic responses to the thin and thinner before-and-after pictures posted by a young woman calling herself AnorexicBeauty:
[list]"You're my thinspiration! How did you do it?" writes one.
"Your collar bones are beautiful - nice job," says another.[/list:u]
"It's an expression by people that are ill who are trying to find support and justification for their thinking and behaviour," says Merryl Bear, executive director of the National Eating Disorder Information Centre in Toronto.
What's more, she says, it allows other vulnerable people to be sucked in.
"It's pervasive, so kids actually don't have to go searching for negative stimuli or negative encouragement to engage in unhealthy food and weight behaviours," Bear says.
As prevalent as the websites and message boards are, Goldhammer says the Internet almost never comes up in her group therapy sessions with recovering anorexics.
"They don't want to bring it out into the light of day," she says, adding discussion on Internet issues is also a rarity in academic literature about eating disorders.
The Internet's shroud of anonymity is one reason the pro-ana and pro-mia movements have flourished. Eating disorders are secretive and isolating by nature, so the Internet provides instant access to information and people beyond all geographic borders.
The slippery nature of the web also makes the pro-ED world almost impossible to control. After major media outlets publicized the issue in 2001, Internet giants like Yahoo began shutting many websites down. But they crop up elsewhere - and even today if you type "pro-ana" into a Yahoo group search you'll get dozens of hits.
So, as for child pornography and digital music piracy, the solutions for cracking down on the online pro-eating disorder world are elusive.
"For me, it doesn't make a big difference to close down one site because it will pop up somewhere else," says Bear. "What we need to do is to challenge the source of the issue."