What if there were multiple websites that promoted suicide that were accessed by hundreds of adolescents each day? Should they be banned in schools? Should there be some kind of government legislation over such sites? Many young women feel this way about pro-ana and “thinspiration” websites, undergrounds that promote anorexia and bulimia nervosa as lifestyle choices rather than psychological disorders.
These websites offer tips on keeping disordered behaviors a secret as well as photographs of women and men who are unrealistically underweight as “encouragement” to maintain an unhealthy diet regimen. These photos bear captions such as “If they can do it, why can’t you do it?”
“It makes the girl in my mirror look that much more disgusting in comparison,” said Olivia*, who is in recovery for anorexia. “It made me need to keep going.”
As shocking as it may sound, pro-ana websites often downplay the mental and health issues attached to eating disorders and make them out to be somewhat of a diet plan.
“These sites tend to make light of eating disorders and ignore the fact that they are actually very serious, thus the prevalence of eating disorders is perpetuated,” said Maisie*, a former user of pro-ana and thinspiration websites.
Many of the sites are set up as social networks similar to Facebook in which each user creates a profile. Information that users post include current height and weight, goal weight, and “thinspiration,” photos, song lyrics, and personal manifestations such as “starving hurts but hunger works,” and “nothing tastes as good as thin feels” to encourage users to continue on a path of extreme weight loss.
Other sites play videos, constant montages of skeletal women, including celebrities and models, set to an ironically chipper soundtrack. The women are often faceless, and common shots include the low waistline of blue jeans and protruding hipbones or a shot of a stick-legged girl in shorts with the notorious “thigh gap” that many viewers aspire to have.
“Like ballet and some forms of modern dance, thinspiration puts a premium on both agony and lightness,” said Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times. “It also carries a fierce ethic of self-sacrifice.”
Many who have seen these sites view them as both a health threat and a complete moral and ethical outrage.
In 2008, French legislators approved a law against web sites promoting anorexic or bulimic behaviors, which is impressive for a capital of high fashion. However, many have doubts that such a law would work in the United States.
“I definitely think there should be some kind of legislation over these sites, although it would be difficult to do much because of the First Amendment,” said Maisie. “Maybe pro-ana and similar sites could be required to include some kind of warning about the dangers of the site’s advice to health—the same idea as the warnings on cigarettes and alcohol bottles.”
Many pro-ana websites use the guise of being an online eating disorder support system for those trying to recover, and their operators argue in defense of that claim.
“We are here as a live-and-let-live community where people do not seek to judge, but seek to understand,” said James Watson, founder of the website Prettythin.com, in a letter in 2010. “PrettyThin is not pro- eating disorders; it is pro individual. We support those who have an eating disorder and wish to live lives without being treated like freaks.” He also said in his letter that he does not believe that eating disorders should be treated as a mental illness, although many health professionals would argue that that is exactly what they are.
Like most sites of this genre, posts on Prettythin personify eating disorders and give them names, the most common being “Ana” for anorexia and “Mia” for bulimia.
“It definitely is abnormal behavior; it is a sickness,” said Kara Caricato, who struggled with anorexia and bulimia for about 15 years. She is one of many that believes these sites are like a suicide aid. “That is basically what you are doing to your body, slowly killing yourself,” she said.
Both founders and those in opposition to these sites agree that they serve as a safe haven and familiar place to turn for both anorexics and bulimics, no matter how unhealthy that is. But some pro-ana sites take it to extremes.
One such example is the subgenre known as “bone thinspiration,” whose ideals represented are so severely emaciated that they look like they could be corpses. They go by names such as “Clavicle Envy” and “Skeleton Stories.” Other sites represent anorexia as a religious belief, set with a list of commandments and prayers.
The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) recognizes February as National Eating Disorder Awareness Month and will be hosting an awareness walk in Tampa, Florida, February 25th. NEDA also hosts the year-long Media Watchdog program, in which those who are anti-pro-ana can write letters of protest to the sites as well as to magazines and television networks.
While eating disorders do not discriminate, the target audience for pro-ana websites is middle class Caucasian women between the ages of 15 and 24. According to NEDA, eating disorders are most prevalent in female middle class college students.
Historically, college campuses have protected students from potentially harmful sites such as Juicy Campus. Should pro-ana sites join the banned list?
“At private schools, where there are a different set of standards, I think pro-ana sites should be blocked to protect students from this influence, at least while they’re on campus,” said Maisie.
Mental health professional Laura Praschan agrees that these sites should be blocked from most university campuses. Until then, she advises that those prone to emotional triggers should avoid pro-ana and similar websites.
“Even sites claiming to be a community for those in recovery can be dangerous grounds,” said Praschan.
For more information on the impacts of these sites or participating in any NEDA events, visit http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
*Interviewee did not wish to reveal last name.