Thursday, July 06, 2006

A Word on Pro-Ana Websites

If you’re not familiar with the concept, pro-ana websites are those designed to provide support for sufferers of eating disorders. The sites describe anorexia (cleverly referred to as “Ana”) and bulimia (“Mia”) as “lifestyle choices,” not diseases, and do not encourage recovery from these conditions. An introduction to one site I found had this to say:

“This is a pro-ana website. Pro-ana is a source of support for those who are living with an eating disorder. Please leave if you are not living with anorexia or bulimia, or if you are trying to recover. Do not misuse the information on this site and let your eating disorder get out of hand. I will not be held responsible for your actions. This site is not intended to encourage people to develop eating disorders. The purpose of this website is to offer support to those who are living with an eating disorder.”

Support, though, seems to be an amorphous concept. Many of the sites offer encouragement for food restriction, glorifying starvation, as well as tips for easier purging and how to hide one’s disorder from others. Adulation is offered to those able to toe the fine line between life and death. A red string bracelet (similar to that modeled by the Kabbalah faithful, promulgated by celebrities) is worn to distinguish those who are pro-ana and pro-mia from the rest of the world.

Inspiration on the sites arrives in the form of pithy quotes, such as “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels” and via pictures of eating-disordered or grossly underweight celebrities, filed under “thinspiration.” One site warns its readers not to eat, urging, “You should be eating your own flesh all away from the inside first, before you are deserving of actual legitimate sustenance.” It also encourages e.d. sufferers to “Remember, think thin, and try not to faint too often or die.”

One site offers this tip: “If you have a sweet tooth use stevia instead of sugar. Try to stay away from stuff like Splenda. Remember, if it came from a science lab, it’s probably not healthy for your body. The best things for you are natural, and grown in a garden.” Upon first glance, this seems true and quite supportive of nutritional health. However, this also comes from a site that describes the first day of its weight-loss plan as “starve day.” Not so nutritional after all. . .

The psychological community (particularly that which serves eating-disorder populations) is, as you’d imagine, rather disturbed by the proliferation of these sites, though the question of what to do remains an issue. While the first amendment comes to play here, some web hosts, such as Yahoo (so I’ve heard), have disallowed pro-ana sites a home. Many sites are still available, however, and those who struggle with eating disorders (a persistent bunch, by definition) are easily able to find them.

I hesitate, in fact, to write at all about pro-ana sites, for fear that those unexposed will decide to visit them and find something that promotes disordered eating. However, this is a bona fide concern in the eating disorder community, and I think it’s important to expose, particularly given the appeal of these sites to young girls. Pro-ana sites anthropomorphize eating disorders, turning serious illnesses into friends (“Ana” and “Mia”) that sound more like friends you’d like to join for lunch than serious physical and psychological illnesses.

I’ve realized, though, that the sites are largely reflective of a culture that is, for the most part, pro-ana. Fashion and celebrity magazines celebrate food restriction and other unhealthy means of weight-loss (e.g., Mariah's Diet). A recent issue of Star magazine featured a story entitled, “Skinny S.O.S.! Stars’ Scary New Affliction—Foodophobia And It’s Contagious!”, but the very nature of the two-page, photo-plenty spread focusing on Kate Bosworth, Victoria Beckham, and Nicole Ritchie seemed to tacitly reinforce the unhealthy eating patterns/sizes of these stars. True, the fashion world/Hollywood does not (at least, vocally) promote subsisting on “your own flesh,” but there seems to be a very fine line between the daily messages we’re exposed to and those offered on pro-ana sites, causing me to begin to wonder if the only difference between a pro-ana website and a fashion/celebrity magazine is that the website is willing to admit what it is up to.

15 comments:

PalmTreeChick said...

I've actually visited many of the sites you mentioned. At first, they are hard to find online, but once you stumble upon one the rest are usually linked on that page.

So yes, I've visited them. Spent some time reading them. You do get sucked in. Some of was there was a little disturbing, I'm sure way more disturbing to you, a professional, than to me who obviously has some issues. But, I've always enjoyed reading about eds and people's stories.

This is what I think, just my opinion; I think if you are already have an ed, the sites won't have much of an impact on you as far as giving you tips and ideas. Granted, I don't do a lot of the tips that they give, but I know all about them. They definately provide a place for people with eds to go for "support" which feeds the ed and doesn't make it better. Everyone there can relate to each other and they are there for each other to "help" them with their eds, meaning help them get skinny.

I actually just wrote about having friends with eds and how nice it is to have someone to talk to and "work at it" (getting skinny). Obviously, not healthy, but I feed off of that drive and (sometimes) competition.

I think the sites are especially bad for young girls who don't have eds but are kind of thinking about losing weight and stumble across these sights. They usually don't know any better and can get sucked in quite quickly.

Teens are bombarded with the peer pressure to be perfect and look a certain way, and it's just getting worse. I wouldn't want to be growing up in this day and age. My guess is that they see these sites, start reading them and eventually find themselves stuck in an unhealthy, and possibly deadly pattern.

I actually met one of my good friends in an ed chat room about 8 years ago. They dub themselves as a "recovery" chatrooms, but most people aren't in there to recover. Some do offer support and have administrators, like Something Fishy, but most that I've found don't. Though, I haven't really visited chats in a while so that might have changed.

So, that was long-winded. I'll shut up now.

Haley-O said...

I think you're absolutely right--our culture is "pro-Ana."--And, there's a great, landmark chapter for your book right there. Great stuff....

drstaceyny said...

PTC--right, so with a little persistence, they're not so difficult to find. I agree with you--if you have a full-blown e.d., the sites are probably not going to have such a profound effect (because the basics are already in place). But, for the millions of women with ednos (or sub-clinical disorders), as well as kids and teens, these sights can be provocative and alluring (as you say, it's easy to get "sucked in"). It's hard to come across this kind of information and then remove it from your consciousness.

Haley--ha! Right now, it's chapter 3 (the whole cultural piece)--dedicated to Haley O and The Cheaty Monkey (who hopefully will have a different cultural experience as an adult).

Haley-O said...

Woot! Loves it! The monkey and I will be famous!

Hey, if you want someone to read your manuscript before you send it out, feel free to ask me (among others, of course)....I have a lot of editing experience (I was a research assistant for various English professors--which involved editing/indexing their books), and I worked in the publishing industry (albeit in children's books)....I totally understand if you don't call on me--just letting you know I'm here to help should the need arise. :) I just think your book's going to be terrific, and I'm happy to support you even just here on this blog. :)

drstaceyny said...

Thanks, Haley!

Anonymous said...

Actually, what's now known as "pro-ana" once began as support groups for people with anorexia. That was some time ago in the 90s. There are still sites like this. However, many are now hard-core Ana "worshippers", and it's frightening.

Today, not only does it advocate eating disorders as life choices...but even scarier, these girls do not exhibit the eating disordered mindset of real ED people...

What does this mean? Contributers to these message boards generally have normal, healthy minds, and are subjecting themselves to "ana" for the sheer glory of thinness---and often for the glory of having a "real problem".

I've sifted through these boards before while researching for a paper. It's an ugly place more often than not, filled with teeny boppers--which would perhaps explain the juvenile nature of their mantras and "ana creeds". It takes a strong stomach to sift through the comments without vomitting. It *looks* like a mockery of eating disorders. Even I had to remind myself "They're just misguided. They're just misguided" while wanting to rant about how this was the very thing that leads doctors not to take eating disorder cases seriously.

Out of curiousity I sifted through a section titled "What triggered you?", a section where members could share what triggered them to lose weight this way.

It was the first time I've ever hoped to hear the stories typically told by eating disordered patients. And I would never wish that pain on anyone.

Instead, I read a lot of "Well, I was always the skinniest and then this new girl moved in to town and she's SKINNIER so I need 2 lose 10 pds!!" or "I was skinniest but then my best friend lost weight!"

I don't mention this to mock all of those girls. I'm just frightened that pro-Ana is creating another eating didordered world entirely! The thin line that kept the notion of eating disorders ABNORMAL and EXTREME as a form of competition is blurring much faster than we believe.

We have the traditional image of the eating disordered person whose self-esteem is damaged somehow, or for lack of better terms, abused...

And now we also have an entire group of girls whose naturally thin frame was glorified so much their entire lives, they can't handle anything that challenges it.

The glory of their weight is their world entirely.

That said, I wouldn't visit too many pro-Ana sites willingly. There aren't too many brain cells floating around those message boards. You WILL want to smack someone.

Anonymous said...

Ack. In my haste I worded some things very poorly.

"Pro-Ana"( or our society, that which has made Pro-Ana thrive)isn't bringing us a new angle of eating disordered minds, it's reverting back to the idea of disordered eating we had in the 60s and 70s--"the rich white woman's disease".

Documents of patients at that time characterize them vapid, self-absorbed, coddled, women--An interesting comparison to the 12-16 age range, primarilly suburban, well-off description that can be applied to typical pro-ana visitors.

The stereotype caused doctors to be hostile to ED patients in the 60s and 70s--and much of that stigma STILL isn't gone.

I fear what may happen with a backlash. There was so much progress made...

Anonymous said...

You all judge but you've never been there, you've never experienced that self hate and that self loathing. I was going to kill myself if I didn't find support. I guess I'm just killing myself in a different way now, but at least I'm happier. Why can't you just step off and stop analyzing and decoding us? Why can't you just mind your own fucking business and let us live the best way we know how?

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Begierde said...

I am French . It's a pity to see how it is common to see pro ana websites on the web ...

An dnow ,french little "pro ana" tried to translate their website to make english and amercan people comming in, and get more and more "fans" and be the "most skinny" of them ...

Why are this girls so keen on beeing "the most" of everything which is bad and dangerous ???

begierde said...

I wanted to ad that I have respect for people who are sick. But in France Por anorexia tends to be more a "challenge" to be thinner that the others , more than to try to live with illness ...