“I wanna be skinny, I wanna be skinny. I wanna be so boney. Oh my God. I wonder how long it would take to lose like 50 pounds if I didn’t eat at all.”
So writes “Elezabeth” in her online diary. And there’s more. “Do you think in a month or so I could just waste away? But do you think I even have the will power?”
Proclamations of this frightening nature are popping up all over the Web at an alarming rate. Individuals with similar thinking in their quest for perfection believe that “an imperfect body reflects an imperfect person.” They are part of a network of Web surfers that call themselves “pro-ana” and “pro-mia,” which are short for “pro-anorexia” and “pro-bulimia.” These sites promote, encourage, support and persuade their users into continuing an unhealthy, dangerous way of living.
According to the government’s Center for Mental Health Services, 90 percent of those who have eating disorders are women between the ages of 12 and 25. But clinicians report both disorders in children as young as six and individuals as old as 76.
The various pro-eating disorder Web sites, forums, chats, Web rings and discussion boards actively abet these emotionally unstable individuals in their detrimental desire to be thin.
“This site is here for one reason, to encourage you to stay anorexic or to persuade you to become anorexic,” the home page of one Web site states.
“Why? Because anorexia is awesome,” it continues. “It fills the void that would otherwise make life a boredom fest. It’s a major statement. It separates the weak and meek from the ultra achievers.”
When the existence of such Web sites was brought to the attention of Pepperdine students, they had something to say. “I was not aware that there are Web sites devoted to promoting eating disorders, and am disgusted to find that there are,” junior Abbey Moran said. “It is horrible and frightening that eating disorders are starting to become acceptable in our society. The number of people who have eating disorders is already on the rise, and the last thing we need is Web sites promoting this behavior.”
As a recent Los Angeles Times article pointed out: “With their misspellings, muddy graphics or stream-of-consciousness entries, some of these sites may look amateurish — even harmless. But therapists are already seeing alarming evidence of their effects. Their casual tone and imperfections, like a voice of a friend, are, in fact, their power.”
With a disease as serious as anorexia, the issues are deeper than simply a matter of eating.
“This is not an issue about food,” said Sunnie De Lano, registered dietitian for student services at Pepperdine University. “Food is just the mechanism used to gain control, to punish ourselves, to hide from other issues that plague us, however it is interesting that eating disorders are becoming such a prevalent way to deal with issues out of our control.”
These Web sites are sometimes the only feeling of security that sufferers of an eating disorder feel they have, she notes.
“I think that these sites promote the idea of eating disorders being ‘normal’ and eating disordered thoughts and behaviors as not being a life threatening illness,” De Lano added. “It tends to glamorize eating disorders. However, I do believe that if somebody truly wants to be healthy, they would avoid these sites and not allow themselves to be influenced this way. They are most threatening to our younger population — especially middle school, where so much physical and emotional development is still occurring and peer pressure is so great.”
Time magazine reports that 80 percent of all children have been on a diet by the time that they have reached the fourth grade.
“Anorexia for me is all about control,” writes 14-year-old Michelle from California, a self-proclaimed anorexic and pro-ana site creator. “If I can be in control of what I eat, then I can be in control of the rest of my life too.”
According to De Lano, control is a hard issue to relinquish and it won’t occur until an individual is truly ready. Sometimes that time may never come. But when it does, true healing can begin.
“There was a time when I was in recovery and tried to get better,” explains Starbright, 24, a registered S.C.a.R.E.D. (Support Concern and Resources for Eating Disorders) forum user, “but it didn’t work for me. There is something that is causing me to hold onto ana tight. I choose not to let go at this point. It is a form of control for me. I think it takes a lot of courage to recover and I just don’t have that right now, but that does not make me and anyone else an evil or bad person.”
Starbright doesn’t think these individuals are “evil,” they are simply “struggling” and “scared” and don’t know where they can turn without facing judgment.
That is where the Internet steps in. According to experts, anorexia, bulimia, compulsive eating and all the other various forms of self-mutilation are very lonely illnesses.
But now, with the creation of the Internet, sufferers around the globe can come together in a “safe place” where they will not be judged or forced to recover if they are not ready. They can share their thoughts, fears, advice, hopes and goals without being mocked or left with feelings of guilt and shame. Most of these individuals simply seek acceptance, mostly from themselves.
Shasta, a young woman from Australia, finds these sites to be “frighteningly helpful and encouraging” in her own personal quest for “ultimate perfection.”
“They know what they’re doing is wrong,” said Christa, 17, a college student from Texas and recovering anorexic, “and they are constantly looking for someone to say that it is okay. People suffering from eating disorders seek to find someone who will encourage them in their self-destruction.”
Some believe these sites are actually invented by people who are coping with the disease themselves. “I think the sites that promote this type of behavior are started by those who are still struggling and want to remain sick,” said “Strwbry Fields,” 30, a New York native.
Others suggest different forms of recovery. Virginia resident Arhonda Naramore, 27, believes that anorexics need more support groups and more understanding from the media in order to help those that suffer from this illness.
“These types of sites only make it harder for people to understand that this is a serious condition and people who suffer from it deserve just as much sympathy as someone who has any other kind of disease,” she said. “We are not members of a circus. We are normal in most aspects of our lives — mothers, teachers, wives and friends.”
Recovery from one of these disorders is a long and arduous road. It takes patience, determination and persistence. According to Naramore, it is “a tough day-to-day,” or “hour-to-hour recovery.”
Min Browne, 65, from Pompano Beach, Fla., has been an anorexic for more than 30 years and explains that “the road to recovery is very hard, especially if like me you have had an eating disorder for a long time. It becomes a way of life and hard to break.”
How can people begin to eliminate the need for such sites?
“I believe that the best plan of action that we have to combat eating disorders,” said junior Laura Heiserman, “is to talk to our friends, ask them what is going on in their lives, build them up, make sure that they know we love them for who they are and will be their friend and support no matter what is going on in their lives.”
Those attempting to recover from any of these dangerous disorders need continued positive reinforcement and total acceptance in order to heal completely — both physically and emotionally.
Even though society and its focus on beauty is so prevalent, how people see themselves selves and whether they accept and love themselves for who they are and whether we accept others for who they are begins in the home, psychologists say.
“Parents need to teach their children that picking on other children for any reason is wrong,” stated Christa. “You have to change the children’s behavior before you can change society.”
February 21, 2002