Eating Disorders and the Internet

The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Horrible

With the Internet, the world is literally at your fingertips. With just a few clicks and keystrokes, you can find yourself swimming in weight-loss information heaven. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about that weird lemonade diet your brother swears by, thousands of low-fat recipes, workouts and meal plans of the hottest-celebrity-du-jour, and the latest cellulite “solution,” all available to you within seconds.

Love your body and being healthy? Great, this easy access probably works for you. But if you’re more like the majority of diet-centric America, hell-bent on achieving the advertised “perfect body,” you just might become a tiny bit obsessed with the endless stream of information. You’ll find the hours slipping away as you browse for the best and easiest way to alter your body’s natural design. If you feed the obsession enough, you run the risk of losing a lot more than a couple hours from your day.

If you’ve never stumbled across a Pro-Ana website, consider yourself lucky. To someone with a relatively healthy relationship with their body, these sites are a collection of jaw-dropping photos and disturbing tips and tricks that quite clearly promote thinness as the end-all, be-all of life. After curiosity is abated, the healthy visitor moves on. However, for somebody in the depths of an eating disorder, or in danger of developing one, the Pro-Ana world is nothing short of a black hole.

For the purpose of this article, I use the term “Pro-Ana” to collectively refer to websites, blogs, forums, and other social networking communities that focus around the management of eating disorder behavior. Pro-Ana is short for Pro-Anorexia, and its sister, Pro-Mia being Pro-Bulimia. These sites, dating back to the late 90’s, have been growing steadily in both number and in readership.

Once a relatively underground movement, Pro-Ana has received more and more media attention in the past decade, and for a good cause. Web hosts and social networking staff have been trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to close sites and disband communities, but for each one shut down, it seems 10 more pop up in different locations, more cleverly disguised.

Common in these communities are a variety of “tools” used to promote weight loss and extreme thinness. Visitors can browse photo galleries full of shockingly thin actors and models, also known as “thinspiration.” They can read hundreds of tips and tricks for restricting intake, fasting, “safer” purging, and fooling suspecting parents and medical teams. They can discover poetry, movies, song lyrics and books dealing with food, weight, and self-hatred. There are areas where members can journal about their struggles, list their daily food intake and exercise minutes, and proclaim their highest, lowest, current, and goal weights. Visitors can even take part in extreme weight-loss competitions that would terrify any nutritionist.

To be fair, not all of these sites and communities take it this far. In fact, most Pro-Ana sites offer a disclaimer, stating that eating disorders are “not encouraged,” are “dangerous activities,” and that those in recovery should exit the page. Some sites are scarier, with their creators and visitors in agreement that eating disorders, particularly anorexia and bulimia, are “life-style choices” and not psychological diseases. Others claim that they are Pro-Recovery and do not tolerate members who glorify their eating disorders, but do welcome the daily accounts of those struggling.

Recovery-oriented or not, these sites all have one destructive thing in common. They keep you in the self-hating disease world.

The people who frequent these sites will proclaim time and time again that it is about support, community, and a sense of belonging somewhere where they feel truly understood.  And this is an undeniable truth. In the stigmatized, hush-hush world of eating disorders, the internet seems to be one of the few places where they’ll find empathy, friendship, and unconditional support. Unfortunately, this is akin to holding an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in a bar. The intent may be positive, but the means are destructive. You’d tell those people to get out of the bar! Stay away from your triggers! But what do you tell a person with an eating disorder?

This is precisely what makes recovery from an eating disorder so hard. We live in a Pro-Ana world. Weight loss is praised, extreme dieting seems normal, and if someone actually likes their body, we label it as vanity! Both online and offline, we’re inundated with the message that we’re not good enough the way we are.

A person in recovery is required to face their drug (food, or the lack of) several times a day. There is no way around it. Eating disorder memoirs and novels meant to support recovery often end up triggering vulnerable readers. Support groups, often times full of both under and overweight people, are triggers. Billboards, commercials, magazines, almost every conversation in a school restroom…all triggers.

It’s a daunting task to recover in a world such as ours. But full recovery is possible. If you’re involved in the online world of eating disorders, you have to be honest with yourself. Your every thought and every action is either feeding or starving your disorder. Is that blog you read feeding it or starving it? How about that eating disorder support forum? And that Pro-Ana community?  I believe you’ll find the answer, deep down inside yourself. If they’re doing you absolutely no harm, great. If they are, maybe even a little bit, don’t be afraid to acknowledge it. There are people outside of these environments who will accept you, will support you, and will help you heal.

Related articles:
Do I Have a Healthy Relationship With Food and My Body?
Illicit Lovers and Unwanted Guests: Treating Disordered Eating Issues
Full Recovery from Eating Disorders: Is it Possible?

© Copyright 2011 by By Josie Tuttle, MA. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jiovann

    April 29th, 2011 at 4:44 PM

    I’m not convinced that these pro-ana sites are to blame (although I haven’t directly examined them). Our society is plenty saturated with “thinspiration” and the fact that these sites exist is a natural development of technology in a culture that continues to promote unrealistic standards of beauty. I think our time is better spent reaching out in our own circle of influences to build and strengthen relationships. I think WE are the ones responsible, not websites.

  • hannah

    April 29th, 2011 at 7:16 PM

    when I read the first few lines,all that came to my mind was the Me of a couple of years ago.I was literally obsessed with such things and wasted a lot of hours that could have infact been put to better use.these excessively ambitious tips almost backfired and I suffered from frequent fainting.

    then I realized my mistake and stuck to a healthy diet and today I am doing well with my body,combining healthy foods and exercise :)

  • Georgia

    April 30th, 2011 at 9:30 AM

    What kind of nut would ever promote eating disorders? Why would anyone be so susceptible to listen to that kind of junk?

  • Josie Tuttle

    April 30th, 2011 at 8:55 PM

    Jiovann – I would agree with you…websites do not cause eating disorders, but they do provide environments in which they may flourish and thrive. These sites provide a sense of (unhealthy) companionship in an otherwise very isolated life.

    Hannah – Thank you for your comment. I also know first-hand how enrapturing and addicting these sites can be when you’re already vulnerable. Glad you are doing well!

    Georgia – It’s important to remember that eating disorders are mental illnesses. When you suffer with one, the eating disorder is behaving, feeling, and thinking FOR you. So consider it a good sign that these sites seem nutty to you! But many others aren’t as mentally healthy, and for that they are not at fault.

  • chris.c

    April 30th, 2011 at 11:59 PM

    the thing about online advice is that most people do not read the fine print saying that it is not a sure shot way to achieve something and that what may work for one person may not work for another.people need to use common sense and not just jump at every advice.

  • JJ

    May 1st, 2011 at 12:18 PM

    I’m a member of a pro-recovery eating disorder website and do find that when I’m online it feeds the obsession even though the content is recovery-oriented. People are in all stages of recovery, and legitimate recovery discussion for one person are perhaps not where my mind needs to be at any given time. With that said, I still do spend time there.

  • Wendy

    May 2nd, 2011 at 4:43 AM

    It is like I am always telling my daughters. Just because you see or read about something online does not mean that this is something that is true or that they need to be doing!

  • Cassie V.

    May 8th, 2011 at 7:58 PM

    Pro-Ana sites should be banned! All I know about any and all diets on the internet anyway is if it has a name, it’s rubbish. You can claim everything you want but losing weight requires eating fresh food and drinking plenty of water plus some exercise. Anything else isn’t going to be healthy, particularly not tips from such places.

  • Russell

    May 10th, 2011 at 8:26 PM

    Anyone who can look at an anorexic person and think it’s the ideal body has some horrible taste. There is nothing beautiful about a skeletal body. Nothing. It looks revolting. I can’t believe sites like this that encourage cultivating the waif look are allowed.

  • Jo

    May 10th, 2011 at 10:24 PM

    I disagree with shutting down and breaking up pro-anorexia groups. Not because I support them (I don’t), but because it’s a breach of their first-amendment rights and censorship. It’s smarter to overpower them in the Google results by improving the SEO on the anti-anorexia sites and to educate anti-anorexia webmasters on how to do that.

  • Gerry

    May 11th, 2011 at 11:31 AM

    A bulimic girl I know is proof that eating disorders are not “lifestyle choices”. She compulsively binges and throws up, and she calls it a monster, hates herself for it, and has been in hospital multiple times.

  • Bridgette

    May 11th, 2011 at 4:04 PM

    Social Media is effecting all of our personal lives, relationships… even our kids.

  • esther

    May 11th, 2011 at 8:03 PM

    The disclaimer means nothing! A disclaimer is simply the webmaster saying “I REFUSE to take responsibility.” They’re meaningless and accomplish nothing more than covering yourself. They’re not even 100% enforceable because of how open to abuse their usage is. They can say what they want in one but it doesn’t disguise their motives. Those Pro-Ana sites are scared they will be sued when an anorexic girl or boy inevitably dies that’s a regular there. Their only intent is to prevent that, not give good advice. If they truly cared about their members, they would close their sites down.

  • Josie Tuttle

    May 23rd, 2011 at 11:12 AM

    JJ – It’s great that you found a place that works for you. I do believe that people can indeed find some healthy support online, sometimes it’s just hard to do.

    Russell – Most people seeing the anorexic body as ideal our eating disordered themselves, meaning, very sick. In general, eating disorders go way beyond a search for beauty and ideal looks. They may start out that way but they quickly become a dangerous way of managing one’s life.

    Jo – You make a great point. I’m all for improving healthy SEO! :)

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