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.
© Copyright 2011 by By Josie Tuttle, MA, therapist in Beverly Hills, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.