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Pro-Ana: ‘Thinspiration' and Social Media

Is the ‘Pro-Ana’ phenomenon in social media a danger to the recovery process for anorexics?

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By Salatha Helton

04/22/14

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“Pro-ana” is a term that is used throughout social media. Many believe that the term promotes the eating disorder, Anorexia Nervosa. Although the term has been around for quite some time, it’s often avoided in conversation. If you type pro-ana in any search engine you’ll be surprised to find chat rooms, discussion boards, and even YouTube pages dedicated to the purported lifestyle of pro-ana. Supporters of pro-ana often refer to themselves as ‘Ana’ or variations of the name.

Anorexia is clinically classified as a mental health disorder, and professionals maintain that participating in groups is detrimental to the recovery process. Dr. Lauren Ampolos, Program Director at Ai Pono residential eating disorder clinic located in Maui, Hawaii, states that, “looking at [pro-ana] sites reinforces the mindset of anorexia and other eating disorders.”

It’s difficult to determine exactly how many individuals with eating disorders have been influenced by pro-ana; however, a study conducted in June 2010 through Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health showed that 91 percent of pro-ana websites were accessible to the general public. Furthermore, when terms such as “pro-anorexia” and “thin and support” were searched, 83 percent of the results were sites that supported eating disorder behavior through images and text (JHSPH). 

In the chat rooms, you’ll find teenagers and adults engaging in dialogue about disliking their body features, competing with friends to lose weight, and obsessing about current weight “cw” or goal weight “gw.” There appears to be no strict monitoring or regulation of these sites, which are full of phrases such as “thinspiration,” “pro-ana,” “celebrity inspiration,” and tips to start commercial diets and the "Ana Boot Camp Diet" or "ABC" Diet.

To an outsider, the dialogue and content are confusing and disturbing. The emaciated appearance of ballerinas and celebrities is idolized as a goal appearance, and girls engage in explicit discussions about not wanting their thighs to touch or “thigh gap obsession.”

There is the fear of judgment and humiliation from others, so ‘Ana’s’ feel comfort in establishing pseudo-friendships to vent and share their inner thoughts. Imagine being taunted and teased about an issue that you don’t know how to control. Imagine looking in the mirror and having an inner conflict with your outer appearance. Having a mental health disorder such as anorexia can cloud an individual’s perception.

In the United States, nearly 24 million people suffer from some form of an eating disorder (ANAD).

According to Jennifer Lombardi, an eating disorder survivor and the Executive Director of Eating Recovery of California, a medically-supervised treatment program located in Sacramento, Calif., understanding the reason behind someone having an eating disorder is difficult. She explains that it can be caused by several different factors: genetics, depression or anxiety, issues related to culture, pressure to achieve an unrealistic body image, family dynamics, perfectionism, and trauma or loss.

There is also the barrage of images in popular media that depicts “ideal beauty,” even though Hollywood beauty is unattainable by most. Many of the women seen throughout magazines and on television are underweight or airbrushed to present an illusion. Unfortunately, when someone is already suffering from self-esteem and body image issues, these altered pictures can send a message that in order to gain acceptance or achieve beauty, you have to be unhealthy. Having an eating disorder is not about vanity, but about the complexity of various issues.

Although there is a commonality among other pro-ana’s, not every individual with an eating disorder has the same story as to why or how it began. “Sierra” (whose name has been changed for privacy) is a 17-year-old who developed her eating disorder while in high school.

Sierra says she developed her eating disorder out of loneliness. When she was 13-years-old she began to struggle with what she describes as major body image issues. “Much like young girls, I saw a program on TV about anorexic girls, and one of the things mentioned was pro-ana websites… Up until then, I had no idea there was anything like that on the internet, so I searched “pro ana” and found a community on live journal,” she explains.

Although Sierra previously engaged in social media forums, she states that she doesn’t consider herself pro-ana. “I say [I’m] not exactly pro-ana because I won’t encourage someone who is not suffering to try to start. There are girls who say things like 'I wish I could be anorexic so I [can] be skinny, but I love food too much.' I will not encourage [an eating disorder] because this is a terrible thing to have to deal with; however, if I know someone is already [suffering] and has been for quite some time, I will offer support,” she says.

Sierra says that she doesn’t feel supported by her parents because they refuse to believe she has an eating disorder. “My mother has remarked that, [I'm] not anorexic, [I'm] just going through a phase, all high school girls go through it.”

Social media is popular among adolescents and young adults with eating disorders. 90 percent of women who develop an eating disorder are between the ages of 12 and 25 (ANAD).

“When you have an eating disorder, it is a very lonely and isolated illness. I think when you’re in the midst of struggling, part of what people are trying to do through these sites and social outlets is to feel some sense of belonging and to have some connection, even if it’s an unhealthy way. They’re trying to connect around a topic that feels safer for them,” explains Lombardi.

Although eating disorders mostly affect women, men are also affected. However, men typically conceal their eating disorder because of the perception of it being a woman’s disease. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 10 to 15 percent of people with anorexia or bulimia are men (ANAD).

“Being into music most of my life I was never part of social groups at school and [I wasn’t] involved with many extra-curricular activities. Focusing on music led me to be involved with the entertainment industry, which includes the world of fashion and modeling,” says Matthew, 23, a mainstream musician who has a popular video on YouTube titled, ‘Pro-Ana.’

He states that the inspiration behind the YouTube video was seeing young girls in the fashion and entertainment industry criticize their appearance. According to Matthew, being around the girls and hearing their conversations of losing weight to look and feel better and also feel more accepted inspired his music video ‘Pro-Ana.’

Matthew admits that he once suffered from an eating disorder and for a short time was pro-ana. “I desired a [muscular] physique although nothing huge, with extremely low fat… I constantly worked out in the gym three hours a day, running also for about 30 minutes a day whilst eating less. I would count calories, make sure I skipped meals and constantly pushed my body to [its] breaking point,” he says. Matthew says that he recognized the contradiction of wanting to have a muscular and toned physique, yet remain thin at the same time; however, he wanted to achieve defined cheek bones and a small waist.

He continues, “At the time it wasn't a contradiction in my mind - the word contradiction didn't enter my mind. [It] was a way of life because I wanted to have an impossible physique to be more accepted. I wanted to be admired and receive positive attention from others.”

Experts say that those struggling with an eating disorder should know that they’re not alone and to have hope. Also, make sure that the assessment is done by a professional who specializes in eating disorders.

“It doesn’t obligate them to anything, but at the very least they’re having an assessment done by someone who understands the illness,” says Lombardi.

Social media can be helpful in providing better education about eating disorders and finding support from health professionals; however, pro-ana forums and websites promoting eating disorders can also perpetuate a pre-existing illness and endorse harmful messages.

“The comparison is someone who struggles with alcoholism hanging [out] in a bar. It’s a toxic environment and it’s very triggering,” says Lombardi.

Not all social media sites promote pro-ana dialogue. Instagram has shut down hashtags pertaining to pro-ana, and Tumblr and Pinterest allow content but display a small message about the dangers of eating disorders.

Lombardi states that during the time she suffered from an eating disorder, “it became something tangible that I could use to punish [myself] and control my life.”

Professionals recommend that the best way to seek recovery is to find a licensed therapist or medical physician and that it’s always best to find out the psychological, as well as physical, triggers.

“These online sites often influence sufferers to pull away from a healthy support system in friends, family and proper treatment,” says Lombardi. “[They can] be drawn into this unhealthy support system for sustaining their eating disorder. These dangerous groups sadly legitimize this harmful lifestyle and mental illness, and [they] are not aimed at recovery.”

Matthew agrees that pro-ana is a mental illness and that restrictions should be placed on what is accessible through media.

“[It] should be widely discussed with the true negative effects. I also believe that the many causes to why people start to become pro-ana should be discussed openly. They need to see where they are going, see what damage will be done, [and] even if they get better, the impact on the body, heart, liver, etc. is sometimes irreversible.”

If you or someone you know suffers from an eating disorder and would like more information, contact the National Eating Disorder Association.

Salatha Helton is a writer based on the island of Oahu. She manages Lodie's Blog and is the author of the poetry book, Diary of a Skinny Girl.

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