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.