So why are there so many websites devoted to encouraging it?
Dozens of “pro-ana” websites encourage young women to fast their way to ill-health through “support” groups comprised of other anorexics, “thinspiration” images of dangerously thin celebrities and message boards with tips and information on how to be more effective at starving yourself.
A new study in the American Journal of Public Health examines these websites for the first time. It found over 180 of them. The study finds that the sites are easy to access, promote dangerous practices for maintaining an eating disorder, and create social networks to reinforce the behavior.
What’s so bad about these websites? As Salon’s Broadsheet points out, social networks are extremely influential on young people. Healthy teenagers are inclined to follow the herd when it comes to diet, exercise and health choices. If your friends all go out drinking, you probably will, too. If instead they’re all getting up early to train for a marathon, you’re likely to jump on that boat.
With a pro-ana website, you can create a community of friends who all share an important trait: a desire to starve themselves. Per Broadsheet:
It’s a lot like eating and exercising with your friends, except that all your friends have a psychiatric illness. And when that illness is anorexia, 5 to 10 percent of sufferers die within a decade of onset.
The study found that nearly all these sites encourage people with eating disorders to maintain and deepen their illnesses. Confusingly, a few also offer connections for those seeking help and therapy should they wish to stop. That’s a bit like Phillip Morris advertising smoking cessation clinics to a smoking club.
Knowing about sites like these gives parents and therapists a way to see into the anorexic’s world. If your kid is hanging out on pro-ana message boards or talking about a friend named “Ana” who doesn’t seem to exist, you can catch that red flag and get help early.