More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Pro-Anorexia Websites Wage PR War with Dangerous Support and Advice
Monday, September 17, 2007

At Treatment Online we spend a lot of time trying to dispel the stigma surrounding mental disorders. We feel strongly that misperceptions about the mentally ill being dangerous, disgusting, or unreachable add considerable anguish to lives that could be successfully integrated into society. However, some on the web are now engaged in a different kind of anti-stigma campaign. Pro-anorexia websites, part of the "pro-ana" movement, are struggling with psychiatrists in order to fundementally alter the public perception of eating disorders. A new study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders raises the frightening possibility that pro-anorexia propaganda is effective.

Welcome to the Pro-Ana Forum!

Pro-ana is a largely Internet-based movement which views the eating disorder anorexia nervosa as a lifestyle choice rather than a medical condition.

This is the cheerful greeting for visitors to a popular pro-ana website. There, guests are told that starvation is a disciplined choice rather than a mental illness, and visitors are encouraged to share ?thinspiring? stories and weight-loss tips. Images of skeletal role models help keep forum members motivated.

Encouraging people with an eating disorder is recklessly dangerous. Extreme weight loss is not just a matter of hunger and aesthetics, it is a major medical emergency. Starvation can lead to chronic organ problems decades after normal eating habits are resumed. For those who do not get any help for their disorder, death is a likely diagnosis; anorexia is considered to have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

The study from this month's International Journal of Eating Disorders demonstrated the harm that pro-anorexic websites can cause even for those without previous signs of body-image problems. Dr. Anna Bardone-Cone from the University of Missouri tested 235 students before and after viewing one of three websites. One of these websites was a totally innocuous discussion of home decor, another was a gallery of thin but healthy-sized models, and the last was an artificial page that the researchers created by synthesizing the most common elements from popular pro-anorexia sites. Even though only 14% of participants showed any signs of an eating disorder in the pre-test, a majority of subjects had lower self-esteem, worse body image, and greater preoccupation with diet and exercise, after looking at the pro-anorexia website.

Encouraging communities are dangerous because in addition to dragging more victims into the misery, they exacerbate the problem of those who already have eating disorders. On one was the ominous plea for advice posted by Thinner34:

?SHAKING. Why is this happening??

When girls turn to their peers rather than doctors for medical advice, they can easily end up in the hospital. In addition to spreading bad advice, online communities change perceptions by pushing the ?normal? weight down. Confronted online by girls who have all starved themselves to below 100 pounds, the thinnest girl at a high-school could easily begin seeing herself as fat.

This study warns that glorification of anorexia can be detrimental not only for those who already have an eating disorder, but for the majority of women who are well-adjusted but still have exploitable insecurities. Mental health professionals need to work hard to combat the misinformation that online communities spread. They must adapt their message to new technology or they will lose the PR war.
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