Starving in Cyberspace: The Pro-Anorexia/Bulimia Websites
By Sarah R. Brotsky, PsyD, LLP
Reprinted from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Winter 2007 Volume 5, Number 1
©2007 Gürze Books
In the past when individuals admitted to having an eating disorder, it usually meant they were ready to seek professional help and begin the recovery process. Today, many people believe this is no longer their only option. Since the advent of the Internet, there now exists a community that views anorexia and bulimia as a lifestyle. Here, members openly admit to living the life of disordered eating.
There are an estimated 400 websites dedicated to promoting eating disorder behavior. These sites publicize what is called "pro-ana" ("ana" meaning anorexic) and "pro-mia" ("mia" meaning bulimia) positions by including written journals authored by eating disordered individuals, poetry and song lyrics, tips on prolonging an eating disorder , photo galleries, and pictures of users' own bodies (often referred to as "thinspiration" pictures).1
While Internet search engines do their best to eradicate these sites, the community continues to flourish. Extinguished sites quickly reestablish themselves under different domain names and addresses. The problem is not going away.
What makes the pro-ana/mia community so enticing? For individuals in denial of the negative consequences of an eating disorder or who have given up on recovery, these sites provide "support," connections, individual and group identity (surrounding being pro-ana/mia), and the common goal of starvation. They help fulfill the need for close interactions, especially when offline relationships are cold and distant.
An Inside View
Members of the pro-eating disorder community may be unaware of its insidious dark side. For instance, they may experience strong rejection from within the community by other members. This rebuking, often illustrated though the use of cruel and vulgar language, can occur when a member does not abide by the stated or assumed rules of the sub-community (or a small group that is a part of the larger pro-ana/mia community). Occurrences like these could potentially send the rejected member into a state of emotional crisis, which could further exacerbate self-defeating behaviors and the need for isolation.
Professionals are concerned that the pro-ana/mia community is not equipped to help members deal effectively with their negative sense of self. Other members who share the same feelings about themselves reinforce lack of confidence and poor self-esteem. This is confirmed in dialogues of self-loathing comments and negative self-talk. Statements from pro-ana/mia participants include: I'm so pathetic, I'm always mad at myself, I'm such a fool, and me, lol, I haven't done anything to be proud of!2
Making the Choice to Leave
Individuals who want to leave can do so without much resistance. Contrary to the community's cult-like nature, its members are quite receptive to other members leaving, and may even support individuals who want to go into recovery. An alternative to the pro-ana/mia websites are the pro-recovery sites. These sites provide similar forms of communications (i.e., forum, message boards, and chat room interactions) minus the self-destructive nature of pro-ana/mia.
Such sites include:
- Something Fishy Website For Eating Disorders:
A popular recovery website with thousands of members who share their stories and advice with other members. http://www.somethingfishy.org/online/options.php
- We Bite Back:
One of the first "post-pro-anorexia" websites that supports recovery after being a part of the pro-eating disorder community; includes interactive forum and blog pages.
- Eating Disorders Forum:
An interactive forum website that promotes eating disorder recovery.
- United We Starve No More!:
This website was created by this author to help bridge the gap between the online pro-ana community and eating disorder recovery websites; it provides educational information and a "members only" forum, blog, and photo gallery.
- Eating Disorders Blogs:
An interactive site hosted by Gurze Books that includes blogs by popular authors in the eating disorders field. Visitors can read entries, post comments, and ask questions.
If you suspect pro-ana/mia involvement in your child, it is important to talk openly about it. Ask your child what websites she visits and what online groups she belongs to. Inform her about the negative consequences of pro-ana/mia sites. At first she may deny being pro-ana/mia. This is not uncommon. However, it is crucial, either way, to get your child professional help from a psychologist, physician, registered dietitian, or psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorder treatment.
If you are an adult who visits the pro-eating disorder websites, it is necessary for you to be aware of and understand the detrimental affects these sites have on your mental and psychological health. You, too, need to discuss these concerns with an eating disorder professional as well as find alternative online support. You can do so by moving out of the community and into eating disorder recovery websites.
It is important to remember, anorexia and bulimia are not "lifestyle choices." Rather, they are mental illnesses that can result in death. Although the pro-ana/mia community motto states, "a good Ana never dies," it conveniently overlooks the alarming statistics that prove otherwise.
- Giles, D. (2003). Identity construction in pro-ana websites. Coventry University, UK: School of Health and Social Sciences.
- Brotsky, S. R. (2005). The experience of being a part of the online pro-eating disorder community. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Center for Humanistic Studies Graduate School, Farmington Hills, Michigan.