The Internet can be a valuable medium for educating the public about anorexia nervosa and for helping people with eating disorders find 24-hour support. But the online world also holds dangers for girls and young women who are struggling with a distorted body image. Pro-ana blogs, message boards and communities advocate a lifestyle that revolves around a pathological obsession with getting thin. Some online social media platforms have even banned pro-ana sites for portraying self-destructive behavior as glamorous and desirable.
Pro-Ana: A Deadly Lifestyle
“Pro-ana,” short for “pro-anorexia,” began as an underground online movement to support the behaviors and attitudes that characterize anorexia nervosa. It’s important to know that pro-ana communities do not provide support for recovering anorexics. Instead, these anonymous groups support the harmful eating patterns and unachievable ideals that make anorexia one of the most deadly eating disorders among young females. WebMD reports that up to 20 percent of people who are diagnosed with anorexia will die from the condition. Heart failure is a common cause of death among anorexics, but suicide may be even more common. Many young women who meet the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa could also be diagnosed with depression. Self-isolation, self-injury and substance abuse are also widespread among anorexics. Pro-ana communities target these unhappy teens and encourage them to continue the behaviors that are endangering their health. The typical pro-ana blog or message board includes:
- Photos of girls and women who have reached and unrealistically low body weight
- Statistics on the body mass index of thin celebrities
- Tips and motivational advice, also known as “thinspiration,” on how to lose weight
- Suggestions on how to conceal weight loss and eating patterns from family members or partners
- Support for community members who choose anorexia nervosa as a “lifestyle”
The Allure of Pro-Ana Communities
What makes pro-ana communities so alluring to young people? These groups make anorexia seem glamorous and attractive, which is appealing to girls with a low self-image. With their focus on ultra-thin celebrities and the latest diet fads, pro-ana groups make their members feel like they’re on the cutting edge of style and beauty.
Pro-ana is an underground world where girls who often feel ignored or unloved can have a voice. Members of these communities may have certain things in common:
- They have easy access to a computer and spend a lot of time online.
- They are flirting with anorexic eating habits or have already developed symptoms of the disorder.
- They have low self-esteem and are looking for a group that makes them feel special and unique.
- They have few friends in the “real” world and have abandoned their former social activities.
You won’t find facts and statistics about the health complications of anorexia on pro-ana websites. Instead, you’ll find a lot of support for distorted views about eating disorders and unattainable physical ideals. For girls on the brink of developing an eating disorder, these sites can be dangerous traps. For young women in recovery, pro-ana forums or message boards can trigger eating behaviors that they’ve tried very hard to overcome.
Effects of Pro Ana
Pro-ana. It’s a term that defines a community of people who suffer from eating disorders who seek to support each other in actively continuing to choose disordered eating behaviors. Though the pro-ana community is supportive of people living with an eating disorder who seek help, they are primarily in place to support those who have no interest in recovery. For example, one popular pro-ana online forum and site supports “thinspiration,” hosts competitive fasting challenges, and is open to any discussion on disordered eating that users care to discuss – provided they are actually living with an eating disorder and not lurkers or people interested in quick weight loss.
In general, the pro-ana community views an eating disorder as a choice or a lifestyle rather than a mental health issue. The community says they respect all choices that someone living with an eating disorder may choose concerning how to deal with that issue – especially the choice not to recover.
Is this triggering to those who are in recovery from an eating disorder? Admittedly so. There are notices on most pro-ana websites stating that there is triggering information within and that users are encouraged not to take part in discussions that they find offensive. They make no apology for posts, discussions, and educational sources designed to help people manage ongoing disordered eating. People who utilize these forums recognize the danger inherent to continuing to avoid treatment and take part at their own risk.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
Many parents feel reluctant to invade their teens’ privacy online. But if you suspect that a young person you care about has gotten involved with a pro-ana community, intervening could save her life. Get to know a few of these communities by spending time on the Internet. Ask your teenager whether she’s heard of pro-ana and whether she understand how dangerous it is. As Canada’s National Eating Disorder Information Centre states, pro-ana websites promote the illusion that anorexia is a “normal” condition, while reinforcing the denial that often accompanies this disorder. Convincing someone with anorexia to get help isn’t easy. In fact, it might seem impossible. But getting involved in that person’s life may make the difference between whether or not she ever receives treatment.