Archive for ‘Advocacy’

August 15, 2010

Beyond the Pro-Ana/Mia Culture

by Ashley Solomon

“At a certain weight, which is different for everyone, you will lose your period. This is a good thing because it means that you’re losing weight.”

“Getting a pedicure is a good way to distract from eating AND to make yourself feel prettier.”


These quotes, heartbreaking on a number of levels, come directly from a website I was just browsing to research this post on Pro-Ana/Mia websites (“ana” is jargon for anorexia nervosa and “mia” for bulimia nervosa). Despite being very familiar with these sites from working in the field, I never cease to be amazed, and horrified, by the information being promoted. Examining these sites, my heart breaks for their authors, for their readers and members, and for the families of those suffering.

If you’re not already familiar with Pro-Ana/Mia websites (which, in most cases, is a very good thing), I’ll offer a brief description. These sites serve as a forum for the advocacy of eating disorders as a lifestyle choice as opposed to a serious and deadly mental illness. While admittedly these sites differ in their philosophy and approach, most offer support not for the individuals who are engaged in eating disordered behaviors, but for the eating disorder itself. They provide eating disorder tips, tricks for hiding the disorder, “thinspiration” (e.g. photographs of very thin celebrities), chat rooms, message boards for posting latest weights, and a multitude of other resources for those who are not ready for recovery. Some even include contests and a subscription for a daily e-mail to remind the user “just how good being thin feels.” (Please note that I am avoiding detailed descriptions or including URLs so as not to promote these sites.)

The Pro-Ana Food Pyramid, as seen on a popular website.

Think that just the very troubled teeny boppers frequent these sites? Think again. A recent survey (Custers & Van den Bulck, 2009) revealed that 12.6% of girls and 5.9% of boys reported having visited these sites at some point. While many young people may visit out of relatively benign curiosity, even a single viewing can be dangerous, according to researchers. In a well-designed experiment, Wilson and Cass (2007) found that participants who viewed a pro-ana website just once developed lowered self-esteem and an increased preoccupation with weight loss. Among those with eating disorders, the rates of reported viewing are expectedly higher. And, once again, their visits can be dangerous. Over 96% of these individuals indicated that they learned new weight loss and purging methods through these sites (Wilson, Peebles, Hardy, & Litt, 2006).

New research, however, indicates that it’s not the latest purging technique that draws visitors to these sites, but rather the allure of social support. Possibly as both a cause of and a result of their disorders, individuals with eating problems tend to feel segregated from the others, stuck in their own personal dungeons. An eating disorder can be a very lonely place, and thus some individuals use the internet to alleviate the potentially crushing feeling of isolation. Pro-Ana/Mia sites, while full of potentially dangerous ideas, offer their users the holy grail of womanhood… acceptance.

Understanding this need for acceptance and support, Michael Levine, PhD, a professor and author (and, for the sake of full disclosure, one of my personal idols), along with a student, Kelsey Chapman, developed an answer to Pro-Ana/Mia sites. Their site, Beyond Ana and Mia, aims to provide a support network for individuals who may or may not be ready for recovery, but does so in a safer and healthier manner. Their site offers users a section for creative expression, information about eating disorders and recovery, and a moderated forum (meaning no diet tips or “thinspiration” permitted).

The beauty of Beyond Ana and Mia and similar efforts is that, instead of simply dismissing or chastising the more dangerous websites, they have used research to identify what the real purpose of these sites are – to offer the human connection that all of us, even those with eating disorders, desire. They are then able to offer that same service in a way that supports not the disorder, but the person. This speaks to the importance of research and a thoughtful exploration of the issues. And to that I say, Bravo.

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August 5, 2010

Girls on the Run!

by Ashley Solomon

This is a “bonus” blog post for this week because I just couldn’t wait to let you all know about something that has been making me smile all week!

Last week I stumbled upon a post by Caitlin (same chick I mentioned earlier this week who developed Operation Beautiful) about Girls on the Run. When I began reading, I had the sense that this initiative was something I had heard about before, but I wasn’t quite sure. So I kept reading…

What I learned was that Girls on the Run does some truly amazing things. GOTR is an experiential learning program designed for girls ages eight to thirteen. For the past fifteen years, GOTR has been offering education and empowerment to girls as a means of not only preventing risky behaviors, but also encouraging healthy development in all areas of life – academic, social, mental, spiritual, moral, and physical. It works by offering girls a running program combined with a curriculum focused on building self-esteem and great health habits. The girls in the program follow a ten- to twelve-week curriculum in which they get to know themselves and each other, focus on team-building and communication, and develop an understanding of their local and global community. They even have lessons on media literacy!! At the end of the program, the girls complete a 5k race, an achievement that gives them an incredible sense of accomplishment and confidence.

Program evaluations have demonstrated that girls that participate in GOTR show statistically significant improvements in body image, eating attitudes, and self-esteem. The analytical side of me loves this! And the emotional side of me was brought to smiles and tears in reading some of the essays written by participants.

Check out this one written by a third-grader who learned to stand up for what she believes in. I loved how it shows the program has ripple effects – the girl became more confident in her beliefs and the boy also gained acceptance. What could be better?

So, why am I telling you all about Girls on the Run? Well, it’s a great organization worthy of attention in its own right… but I also wanted to share my “exciting news” that I have decided to join SoleMates, a program designed to support Girls on the Run. The idea is that athletes (weird to call myself an athlete, but I’ll go with it) sign up to meet individual goals, such as running, walking, or biking in a particular event, in order to raise money for local GOTR councils.

While I have discussed running on this blog, I haven’t mentioned what I’m training for specifically. I am currently training to run the 5k at the Baltimore Running Festival on October 16th. While a 5k might not seem like a big deal, particularly after having run a half-marathon, I’m running to beat a specific time that a few months ago was only a pipe dream for me. I’ve been kicking my own butt training for this event, and I decided that all of this time and energy should really have a purpose bigger than me saying I was simply able to do it. Thus, when I heard about SoleMates to support GOTR, I knew this was meant for me to get involved.

I know that there are a number of you reading who are walkers, runners, and bikers, and plenty more who could be if you wanted to, so I am encouraging you to check out this program. There are also other ways to get involved in Girls on the Run, so check out their website for details.

If you’re not in a position to join yourself, feel free 🙂 to support me in my fundraising efforts.

It’s pretty amazing when something that you’re already dedicating yourself to can help make a difference in the lives of others. Thanks for your support!

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July 28, 2010

Tips for Recovery Series :: (2) Stop Supporting the Culture of Thinness

by Ashley Solomon

Just to review, I was recently asked by Justine Hoepfner, an author and speaker who is currently developing an eating disorder recovery book, about the “top tips” I had related to eating disorder recovery. I’m planning on sharing with you some of what I shared with Justine during the next few posts.

If you missed Tip 1 on developing body empathy, check it out here.

Tip 2: Stop Supporting the Culture of Thinness

Lizzie Miller, as featured in Glamour magazine, after being considered by others as "too big for modeling."

As human beings, one of the most destructive things that we can do to ourselves, and to one another, is to support the culture of thinness that has emerged over the last century. As we have grown as women, both in size and in power, we have allowed our standard of beauty, our ideal, to shrink to the point where the woman is nothing but skin and bones. We have allowed corporate advertising executives and modeling agencies and Photoshop experts to define what is beauty and what is sexy and what is good. And to these individuals, in reality only a minute percentage of the population, beauty is angular nothingness. It is emaciation. It is emptiness. We as women know that this is not true. Beauty is heart and soul and mind and energy and love – all of the things that wither away when one begins to shrink in size and in person.

My research has been on programs that helps inoculate girls to the influence of the mass media and its perpetuation of the thin ideal. When I went into classrooms last year to run this program, I was energized by the bright and talented young women before me. And so when they began to talk about the way that the songs and movies and magazines make them feel – fat, deformed, inferior, less than – my heart broke.

As women we have an obligation to say no. No to unrealistic standards. No to nothingness and emptiness. That means canceling the magazine subscription, turning off America’s Next Top Model (if you feel it offers a limited portrayal of beauty), and deleting the email that promises a new butt by Christmas. One of the most important things we can do for our own recovery, and for our futures, is to stand up for what we know in our hearts is beauty and resist the urge to succumb to the fashion industry’s own conceptualization of what that is.

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