Posts tagged ‘Pro-Ana’

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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