Through thick and thin

Mar 30, 2005 at 12:00 am

The other day, I made some crack about a pro-ana site to a friend — and was met with a blank stare. After pro-eating disorder Web sites blew up in a storm of media controversy circa 2000, I thought everyone knew about this sadly sick and strange Web phenomenon. Guess not.

In case you’re not familiar, the Web is the new terrain for those seeking support in their unhealthy and unnatural quest for thinness. These pro-eating disorder (pro-ED) sites provide motivation to starve yourself, in the form of “thinspirational” photos of models who look like Auschwitz victims, “ana-recipes” and message boards where girls can trade tips and tricks. They even give their disorders cutesy female names — “ana” for anorexia and “mia” for bulimia — as if personifying their sickness into a secret best friend.

Disclaimer: I am in no way an impartial observer on this topic, having myself struggled with body image issues and eating disorders for the better part of my teens and 20s. Though technically I’m long since recovered, it’s the sort of sickness that never really leaves from your brain, the tiny voice that you can never quite fully extinguish. And that’s exactly why I find these sites so revolting and frightening.

Do a Google and you’ll find hundreds of pro-ana sites. Pro-ED also flourishes on blogs, most notably, the wildly popular site that claims to have more than 2 million active accounts — with many users under 18. On Live Journal, users can create a community, which functions like a message board. A search for “pro ana” reveals more than 200 communities that list the topic as an interest: anagirlz, hate_being_fat, purge_it_away and so forth.

In response to these sites and forums, a wave of anti-ED sites have evolved, displaying photos of anorexics who resemble near-death bags of bones, captioned, “Is it worth it?” But as battles between the pro- and anti- are waged, girls are still logging on and absorbing the starvation imagery, whether it’s intended as a deterrent or not.

Do some of these sites actually offer a legitimate form of support for those who are looking to recover, like an AA group? Or are most simply a motivational tool for those who have no desire to get well? Perhaps a bit of both.

Kristin, from the Detroit area, says she works out a lot and eats 1,300 calories a day (the USDA recommends no less than 2,000 for women). She considers this her “healthy phase.”

“I read pro-ED Web sites all the time because it’s nice to read about other girls’ (and boys’) struggles with body image and how they try to improve their appearances,” she writes.

A 15-year-old anorexic and bulimic girl from Ontario writes:

“This is sick. So, so sick. I fought this on my own, but I know that if I could have found these girls, that would have helped me, given me tips on hiding it. … I would have kept it up for longer. …”

Georgette Gunther, the primary eating disorder therapist for View Psychiatric Hospital in Grand Rapids, says the sites will only exacerbate the disease.

“When you have this disorder, you can never be the best anorexic,” Gunther says. “They’re not supportive, because they’re competing with each other.”

She adds that she’s treated several patients who developed eating disorders solely because of pro-ED sites; girls who were normal and healthy until they logged on and discovered a new world.

The site claims to be a support site for those seeking recovery — and sells colored bracelets to signify an eating disorder. Red is for ana, blue for mia. Supposedly, the idea is for sufferers to connect with one another, much like the breast cancer survivor wristbands. But how many girls wear the bracelets as a symbol of pride? My guess is more than a few.

America Online has shut down several pro-ED sites — but they continue to pop up in droves elsewhere. Live Journal has chosen not to censor pro-ED communities, casting responsibility for any community onto the user who created it; yet their terms of service state that members cannot use the site to “harm minors in any way, as seen by or applicable law.”

Obviously, these sites are protected by the First Amendment — but even if there were a way to make them illegal, would it actually help solve the problem? Or would it just make them even more popular while trampling our civil rights?

Gunther says parents should strictly monitor children’s online activities and keep them away from pro-ED sites. But in reality, eating disorders affect women of all ages, so there are frustratingly few options when dealing with an adult woman with an eating disorder.

Eating disorders are like secret societies, sustained by a cult-like mentality. Hardcore anorexics believe they possess a purity and divine will that outsiders simply can’t grasp — that anyone who claims they are “sick” is just an ignorant schlub who can’t appreciate their unique beauty. And, as illustrated time and time again in these online forums, baiting these girls with taunts like “go eat a burger” only further cements their resolve. Most have absolutely no desire to get well and leave the confines of their sick sorority.

I posted in several Live Journal pro-ED communities as a journalist looking for a person to interview. The response was less than welcoming.

A poster who goes by “109 lbs” wrote:

“See … this is a perfect example of what I like to call ‘invasion of privacy.’ I don’t know who or what gives you the right to come here and try to exploit us. Us, as in a whole. A group. A sisterhood … I feel offended and exposed. I don’t know how it’s OK that somebody can go to a place that is somewhat of a haven to people and try to get a good ‘story’ out of it. I don’t care whether or not your story is neutral, because, anyway you look at it, people will view it in a negative aspect.”

And one conflicted poster pointed out some harsh truths:

“Stories on pro-eating disorder Web sites have gotten old … their good intentions tend to backfire … when girls who had never thought to look for such Web sites are given direct links or exact names in the articles … I wish I had never read my first article on eating disorder Web sites years ago. I would have never been a part of a pro-eating disorder Web site. I find the so-called ‘pro-ana’ trend to be disgusting and sad, it’s disturbing to think that people actually enjoy supporting each other in harming themselves and possible death. (I am fully aware of how hypocritical that may sound, coming from an eating disorder sufferer and all.) However, I have taken part in pro-support and pro-recovery Web sites, and think that communicating with so many other eating disorder sufferers gave me a false sense of normalcy. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in my struggle, but I think it would have been best if I had never known such forums existed.”

I’ve heard it said that eating disorders are “so ’90s” or that “cutting is the new anorexia.” I know that every time I mention “anorexia” and “society” in the same breath, it invokes a round of eye rolls and sighs. With war and torture and our disastrous state of national affairs, who has time to worry about a bunch of spoiled 15-year-old selfish brats who are using the Net to swap barfing tips?

Consider, then, that with all the hubbub over Terri Schiavo, the issues of the moral majority and the separation of church and state, few have stopped to consider how this woman suffered a heart attack at the age of 26. It was caused by a potassium imbalance brought about, many media outlets have suggested or reported outright, by bulimia. (Her family, not surprisingly, is disputing the claim).

These diseases are rampant, and a serious medical issue. They are not just a phase that 14-year-old girls go through, or the punch line to a joke about sorority girls and clogged toilets. They ruin lives, destroy families and, although it sounds so very ABC After School Special, they do kill. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and it’s estimated that 6 percent of all cases will become fatal.

It’s easy to blame the girl who refuses to eat, to call her self-absorbed and vain; it’s easy to shame the webmistress of a pro-ED site, characterizing her as a dangerous enabler. But those women are simply symptoms of the greater problem at hand: our fucked-up, relentless, hypocritical, image-obsessed society. The cultural fuel that continues to feed these disorders is the real criminal, one that’s proven almost too big to grasp, and impossible to prosecute.

Sarah Klein is the culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]