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David Baxter PhD

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Anorexic Girls Bond on Web to Dismay of Doctors

Wed Nov 17, 2004
By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - An underground subculture of teenage girls who bond over their eating disorders and glorify bone-thin celebrities has surfaced on the Internet, in a growing trend that experts say frustrates treatment.

The girls share near-starvation diets in Web journals and offer tips for denying hunger pangs or dodging the suspicions of family members. They discuss extreme calorie restriction or weight loss through laxatives, diet pills and purging, or self-induced vomiting. And they post "thinspiration" pictures of their idols -- such as supermodel Kate Moss and the Olsen twins.

In fact, 18-year-old Mary-Kate Olsen, who with her sister Ashley is the face of a multimillion dollar American brand catering to young girls, has become a top icon in the Web communities since spending six weeks in a Utah clinic for an eating disorder earlier this year.

"I found little pictures of Mary-Kate and I'm posting them all over my room and in my backpack and my purse and my car and everywhere, so I am always reminded of her strength. Hopefully it will keep me in check," a college sophomore named Emma writes in her Web journal while considering a three-week fast broken only by soup on every third day.

A spokesman for Mary-Kate Olsen said the actress has focused on her recovery and not Web chatter. She has not spoken publicly about her disorder and has returned to college.

"She's not trolling these sites so I'm not sure how aware she is of how she's being presented," Michael Pagnotta said. "There's a lot of controversy over some of these sites but when you're a public person you can't be responsible (for them)."

Eating disorder specialists say the sites are particularly dangerous for anorexics, who strongly resist admitting a problem and cling to their illness to avoid dealing with its psychological underpinnings.

"These sites really promote the idea that eating disorders are a good thing and thrive off the denial part of the disorder," said Edi Cook, an eating disorder specialist at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills. "It would be somewhat analogous to somebody struggling with alcohol going to a bar and talking about how stressed out they are."

She said the Web sites were changing the very culture surrounding eating disorders, making them more acceptable to girls on and off the Internet. The Harvard Eating Disorders Center estimates that 3 percent of adolescent women and girls have anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorders.

Experts say girls with eating disorders focus on their bodies in a misguided bid to resolve deeper psychological issues, believing that they can fix their inner troubles by achieving a "perfect" outside. They equate nearly skeletal thinness with perfection.

Kate, a 19-year-old student and anorexic, contributes to a Web journal for college-aged girls with eating disorders. She weighs 98 pounds, up from an all-time low of 90 and told Reuters in an interview that because none of her classmates knows of her anorexia the Web serves as a vital outlet.

"It's a lonely disorder, really," she said. "None of my friends have it and they wouldn't understand the thought processes behind it. I think I could definitely become very depressed if I didn't have some these girls talk to. It's a big part of my life."

Kate uses a photograph of Mary-Kate Olsen as her Web icon and keeps a calendar of the twins on her dorm wall. She identifies with Mary-Kate, has followed her eating disorder struggle and acknowledges envy over the images that found their way onto the Internet.

"I would say that in a way I'm definitely jealous," Kate said. "She was very, very thin at her lowest weight. Most people would think that she was too thin but I have a distorted view of what's thin, so I thought she looked really pretty and I was kind of envious of that."
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