Posts tagged ‘eating disorders’

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 3, 2010

Tips for Recovery Series :: (3) Take a Risk!

by Ashley Solomon

And we’re back to the mini-series! Sorry for the break in consistency – there were some time-sensitive issues to address (like Change the Way You See Week!).

To catch some of you up, 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 sharing with you some of what I shared with Justine in this series.

If you missed Tip 1 or Tip 2, check them out!


Tip 3: Take a Risk!

Eating disorders, especially restrictive ones, are about control and rigidity. They “work” by keeping a person locked inside a world of rules of his or her own making, and this does not apply strictly to food. Limiting your diet may put you inside the box, but limiting your choices and experiences in other areas of life keeps you firmly planted there.

A person with an eating disorder is often petrified to take a risk or try something, anything, new. A creature of both habit and perfectionism, I myself know this fear all too well. For someone struggling with eating, knowing precisely what she will do each day, how much time she would spend on each activity, how many calories she would consume, and so on, allows her a false sense of power and comfort. Sadly, however, this inflexibility can be both part of the cause and the perpetuation of an eating disorder.

The need for order and control can lead some us, especially those predisposed to disordered eating, to control every morsel we eat. It also keeps us tucked in a safe little haven from which we never had to venture. Thus, one important aspect of recovery is to begin taking risks.

This does include trying new foods and incorporating a new way of looking at eating, but it means more than that as well. It also means simply getting out of your comfort zone at times, whether that means riding a roller coaster you’re are terrified of, calling a friend you haven’t spoken to in years, applying for a job you feel under-qualified for, or ordering french fries instead of the fruit.

As I mentioned (and have addressed in previous posts), part of who I am is someone who is quite comfortable with routines and being able to predict the future. But another part of who I am craves what is new and exciting. I have to try, despite my reservations, to feed that part of myself as well. For me it helps to be married to a guy who loves adventure and excitement, and so regularly pushes me beyond my comfort zone. Here’s an example:

In planning our honeymoon, I thought zip-lining in Costa Rica sounded like great fun. When we got there, however, I was not so thrilled to be out of my element.

BUT, I faced my fear and took a risk. (Here’s proof! Though not especially flattering…)

And I ended up… you guessed it!… HAPPY! (Or just thankful to be back on solid ground.)

While Justin’s gentle nudging is helpful, there are many times when he’s not there, and I must push myself to do what might be unknown and therefore scary. I try to remind myself what order and regularity have gotten me (boring Friday nights!) and try to go ahead and take a risk.

What risks have you taken lately?

July 25, 2010

Tips for Recovery Series :: (1) Develop Empathy for Your Body

by Ashley Solomon

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 weeks. I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts on these topics, so leave feedback in the comments section below!

Tip 1: Develop Empathy for Your Body

Traveling and feeling the coolness of the ocean are gifts of the body.

In the midst of an eating disorder, one’s body can become nothing more than a receptacle of hurt, shame, and self- hatred. The body is scrutinized, deprived, and abused. Most of us would never think of treating another person in this way. And yet, individuals with disordered eating do this every day.

One of the most powerful exercises I have learned and now use with patients is this:

Take your most loathed body part – your butt, your stomach, your arms – and give that body part a voice. Close your eyes and begin to think about that part of your body, as if you are that part. Then tell “you” what it’s like to be that body part – how it feels to be criticized and hated and cut down, what it’s like to be constantly belittled and complained about. And try to truly experience what it’s like to be that part of your body. The point of this exercise is to begin to develop some empathy for your body and particularly the parts that are hard to love. It may help to do this with a therapist, particularly to process any feelings that arise.

One of the most important things that I believe individuals in recovery need to do is to begin to appreciate their bodies as not just ornamental, but instrumental. It’s important to think  about all of the amazing things our bodies allow us to do – to run races, to sleep (yes, sleep!), to swim in the ocean, to climb trees, to open new doors, to walk along side our grandmothers, to look at the stars, to hug our children.

Personally, thinking about how my body provides me with so many amazing opportunities and experiences that I cherish makes me feel guilty for treating it badly and for depriving it of the nourishment it needs to do those things. Nutritionists often emphasize food as fuel, which is a useful way to think about what we put inside our bodies. Fueling our bodies is the gift we give in return for all of the amazing things we are capable of doing. It’s much easier to fall into the trap of seeing our bodies as something to be looked at or adorned rather than used and appreciated, because that’s what our culture focuses on. However, every time we walk up a flight of stairs or cuddle up with someone we love, we need to remember that our bodies allow us that particular joy.

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