“Perfection,” “beautiful” and “glorifying” are three words one Web site uses to describe a skeletal image of a young woman’s body. The picture reveals a body so starved every rib can be counted and a stomach so concave her navel almost touches her spine.
This isn’t a photo of a concentration camp survivor, but rather the ghostly image of a woman with anorexia nervosa.
Eating disordered individuals are finding new encouragement for their deadly illnesses by logging on to Web sites that provide negative “thinspiration.”
The American Journal of Psychiatry recently reported that five out of every 100 women and two out of every 100 men have an eating disorder. And experts fear this new breed of sites supporting eating disorders will prove a tough match for sites and centers focused on therapy.
A journal entry on the Anorexic Nation site boasts: “Its midnight and i did not eat all day, had a glass of water this afternoon … Its great feeling empty.”
“These sites don’t make sense in terms of getting well,” Bob Berkowitz, medical director of the Weight and Eating Disorders Program at the University of Pennsylvania, told USA Today. “Instead of a support group to get better, this is kind of a support system to stay sick. It’s like recovering alcoholics going to a bar together.”
Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are both psychological disorders. Anorexics are so obsessed with being thin they will literally starve themselves. Bulimics are also obsessed with their weight, but they eat in binges, then purge, or vomit, the food from their bodies afterwards.
Somethingfishy.org, a recovery site providing information and statistics on eating disorders, reported that eating disorders are “very complex emotional issues.” Depression and a history of abuse are not uncommon in eating disorder cases, according to the site.
Those for whom the Web provides anonymity are using sites promoting “Ana” and “Mia,” nicknames given to the two deadly disorders, to bolster their “I’m okay, you’re okay” attitude about their illness.
Secrecy, denial and isolation often characterize the behavior of individuals with eating disorders, psychologist Joan Pinhaus, co-president of Eating Disorder Professionals of Colorado, told the Denver Post. The Internet’s anonymity offers those suffering from an eating disorder a perfect venue for remaining physically isolated while forming virtual friendships with people who encourage their fights against their own bodies, she said.
Ana and Mia have become welcomed friends to those who aren’t ready to give up their “lifestyle” of starvation and bingeing and purging.
“I met Ana about a year ago … anorexia for me is all about control,” writes one young woman on a site called Anorexic Dreams. “I became friends with Ana because I was unhappy, I like to be in control, and I was overweight. Well Ana is a part of me, and I’m fine with that. Ana makes me happy.”
Steve Bloomfield, of the Eating Disorders Association, told Mail on Sunday, a British publication, that many of these pro-Ana, pro-Mia sites are set up by individuals in the first stages of an eating disorder, when sufferers are on a “starvation high.”
“They are in the phase where it does feel great to be anorexic, and want to share that,” Bloomfield said. “It is only later on that they might realize they are ill. These sites are extremely dangerous, they reinforce sufferers’ belief that they are not ill and the tips are lethal.”
“What these sites don’t mention is 18% of people who develop anorexia will die prematurely,” Bloomfield said in a Cosmopolitan article.
The Eating Disorders Association estimates that there are at least 400 pro-Ana/pro-Mia sites and chat rooms on the Web, according to the Denver Post. These sites and chat rooms glorify the self-inflicted starvation disease that affects about 5 million people in the United States, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s office. One thousand American women die because of anorexia every year, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, as reported in a New York Post article.
Pro-Ana sites offer pictures of extreme anorexics and thin models and actresses as “triggers” and motivators to be thin.
The “Thin Commandments,” part of one pro-Ana site, state: “If you aren’t thin you aren’t attractive. Being thin is more important than being healthy. You must buy clothes, cut your hair, take laxatives, starve yourself, do anything to make yourself look thinner. Thou shalt not eat without feeling guilty. You can never be too thin.”
“I believe in Control … I believe that I am the most vile, worthless and useless person ever to have existed on this planet, and that I am totally unworthy of anyone’s time and attention. I believe in perfection and strive to attain it,” reads part of the “Ana Creed” on one pro-Ana site.
Pro-Ana sites go beyond tips on dieting and offer advice on how to hide one’s illness from family and friends, how to line underwear with weights to fool the doctor at a weigh-in, the best way to purge food and how to survive on diet soft drinks and water.
Pro-Ana sites like “Fat Like Me,” “Anorexia 101,” “Life with Ana,” “Starving to perfection,” “NothingButBones” and “Scaleworshipers” promote anorexia for those who wish to continue their starvation methods, while including a disclaimer for those in recovery to steer clear of their sites. However, experts fear the temptation for those in recovery to visit the sites may be too great.
Combine these sites with the constant bombardment from magazines, TV shows and movies of increasingly thin people, and the battle for satisfaction with self seems futile to many.
Last year, a billboard advertisement sponsored by NBC affiliate KDLT in Sioux Falls, S.D., showed a picture of Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox Arquette and Lisa Kudrow of “Friends” with a message underneath that read: “Cute Anorexic Chicks.”
According to About.com the billboard didn’t last long. Health professionals, eating disorder survivors and Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention successfully petitioned to have the ad removed.
“It is shameful that KDLT would promote a television show by linking anorexia with the beauty, fame and success of the female Friends stars,” Jennifer Biely, executive director of Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention, said of the ad.
The grand dichotomy remains that popular culture focuses on being very thin, despite the fact that the average American woman wears a size 12, is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 140 pounds, according to ABC News. In contrast, the average U.S. model is 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighs 117 pounds.
One out of three women and one out of four men are on a diet at any given time and 35 percent of occasional dieters progress into pathological dieting, according to Rader Programs, a treatment program for eating disorders. Raderprograms.com reported that two out of five women and one out of five men would trade three to five years of their life to achieve their weight goals.
Think people aren’t really affected by pop culture’s body images? Think again.
Rader found that after viewing images of female fashion models, seven out of 10 women felt more depressed and angrier than prior to viewing the images. Are advertisers hoping to inspire consumers to buy products without using images that reflect the average consumer’s body?
“In the battle against anorexia, individuals, the community and social institutions are either anorexia-supporting or fighting anorexia–there is no middle ground,” according to Planet-Therapy.com. “To take a stance against the problem–to be anti-anorexic–is to realize there is a definite and necessary place for medicine in the treatment of anorexia. It is also important to realize there are a multitude of social factors living at the very heart of the problem.”
Planet-Therapy.com also asked these questions:
“What if we began to imagine the problem of anorexia as a cultural by-product, a dysfunctional western theme, a living reproduction of the social order?”
“What if we were to begin to realize each of us, in our own way, supports and maintains the ideas of anorexia?”
“What if we began to locate this problem within a persuasive set of rules for living as dictated by a very persuasive society?”
Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.