Pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites are predominantly designed and used by young women in their teens. The sites combine personal stories, poetry, bulletin boards, and tips dedicated to sharing experiences around anorexia and bulimia. And while the websites do provide support, the nature of the support revolves around enabling it’s users to remain eating disordered.
Pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia sites are dedicated to helping their users become “better” bulimics and anorexics. The girls post messages back and forth about how best to cheat the scale, how to survive on diet coke and 300 calories a day, and how to hide excessive exercise from friends and family. Members are encouraged to take part in dieting/restriction competitions, to post what they ate, and how much on a daily basis, or to share their poetry about Ana and Mia , (shorthand for anorexia and bulimia).
But calling anorexia Ana goes beyond giving a nickname to an eating disorder. To many of the girls Ana isn’t just shorthand, but a personification of perfection.
Artwork of Ana and Mia is drawn as if they were real women. Usually, Ana is rendered as a waifish girl with a fragile, childlike beauty. While Mia is often depicted as a little bolder, a little edgier, like a female action hero, or a “Goth” princess. Drawings of Ana and Mia are symbolic of what the artists would like to be. Of what they aspire to. On the sites, this often referred to as “thinspiration.”
Mainstream media has mostly reported on the extreme aspects of the sites. And what often gets lost in the hunt for a juicy headline is that, as far as the girls who frequent the websites are concerned, the other members are like family, and the website is a form of support.
Who is the audience for a Pro-Anorexia Website?
The majority of the girls describe themselves as teenagers, average in weight, tentatively toying with restrictive behaviors. Mostly, they come to the websites seeking understanding and community. A place where they can express themselves, without having to censor their emotions or experiences.
And to their credit, the members genuinely try to support one another. They rally around anyone sharing an instance of abuse, and they provide a shoulder for other girls who feel depressed and suicidal.
Their hearts are in the right place, mostly, it’s just that their message and the support they offer one another is distorted by their eating disorders.
And while there definitely are extreme and destructive tips on these sites, most of the tips and tricks for weight loss are, ironically enough, straight out of many of the fashion and lifestyle magazines that report on pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia sites.
Should we shut these sites down?
Ever since the websites first started cropping up, there’s been debate amongst eating disorder treatment professionals about what should be done.
Many people believe that shutting the sites down is the only answer to solving the problem and ensuring these dangerous messages don’t make their way into our homes.
But, aside from freedom of speech arguments, others contend that, in the bigger picture, shutting the sites down is only a short-term solution, at best. Young women will continue to engage in eating disordered behavior and recruit one another into what they see as a “lifestyle”, not an eating disorder.
Normalizing Eating Disorders
The bigger problem is how accustomed our culture has become to eating disordered behavior. It is more “normal” to be obsessed with weight and food, than not. More people diet than not. More people hate their bodies than not.
With all this emphasis on completely unrealistic expectations for women, and the insane measures society approves of to meet them, it’s not surprising that teen girls would see eating disordered behavior as normal, or necessary, and congregate to talk about it on the internet.
The reality is, the sites are just a more technologically enhanced version of how women have bonded over the decades by discussing their body size and shape. As the diet mentality has become more pervasive, women have created their own emotional language that bonds them to one another in a united front against their fat. Fat talk, (I hate my stomach it’s so fat, Do I look fat in this?), is passed from woman to woman, mother to daughter, and now girls chat about it over the internet.
Banning pro-anorexia and bulimia sites might make us feel a little better, but they’re not solving the problem, and they’re not making the information on how to be anorexic or bulimic inaccessible-all any teen has to do is open up a magazine or watch television to figure it out.
The best way to combat these sites is to reject the culture that spawns them. “Take the emphasis off food and weight in conversations with your teen. Compliment her on her accomplishments, encourage her in sports and other hobbies that make her feel good, and question unrealistic, unattainable images of beauty,” says Brooke Finnigan of The CEDRIC Centre.
By normalizing normal bodies and healthy appetites, we make it permissible for girls to be who they are. “And that is a beautiful thing,” says Finnigan.