The information super-highway (is that what the kids are calling it these days?) can be great for researching, learning about, and finding support for eating disorders. But, unfortunately, a lot of the information isn’t the kind that’s helpful–it’s the kind that hurts, that’s triggering, and that promotes body negativity. Pro-ana and pro-mia websites and communities are as old as the internet–but they grow more and more concerning each day, as they feed and are fed by the overall “perfection” that the internet seems to breed.
“Thinspiration” (photos of very-thin women), “tips” and “tricks” for unhealthy practices (like purging) and concealing excessive weight loss, diet plans for ultra-restrictive days…you name it, and it’s out there–easy to search to for, and full of pretend (but potentially harmful) “support.” Under the comforting blanket of anonymity, visitors to these sites express hatred of their own bodies, a lack of control, and a desire to look “perfect.” Teenagers, young adults, and even those who are middle-aged can easily find communities full of similarly suffering individuals, and become engulfed in the dark mindset of disordered eating and distorted body image.
“Pro-ana and thinspo sites are created and frequented by people who are stuck in the eating disorder mindset and their content keeps people stuck there. These are communities too, but they are not about recovery and they’re certainly not about health. They are dark echo chambers of illness, and they only serve to make people sicker.” says author and speaker Claire Mysko.
And while it’s easy to shrug off as “just the internet”, the fact is that “just the internet” offers a safe haven for harmful information that can spur lethal behavior and thinking in real life.
“All pro-eating disorder content is potentially triggering and harmful to someone struggling with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder or multiple other forms of disordered eating,” says Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC. The director at Eating Disorder Hope, Ekern calls it ”a perfect storm.”
“I think that the pressure to be unusually thin is greater than ever,” she says. “Simultaneously, internet usage continues to grow in societies around the world,” she explains.
The problem isn’t new–the debate over whether or not to censor pro-ana material was one of the first major web censorship kerfuffle, when Yahoo! and GeoCities both made the decision to no longer host pro-ana material–but in the years since the first LiveJournal and Xanga communities sprung up, the number of pro-ana sites have only grown. In a trend report in 2008, Optenet found that the prevalence of pro-ana sites had increased by 470% between 2006 and 2007.
But, Mysko points out, it’s not just that new social media tools like Twitter and Tumblr (who recently decided to put restrictions on pro-ana content in their community) allow for greater sharing of specifically pro-ana material. In addition to actual pro-eating disorder sites themselves, there’s body-negativity and messages of what “perfection” is coming from all corners of the internet (like these ads, perhaps?), and it’s getting Tweeted and Facebooked all the time. Most frequently, she says, in the form body-snarking.