Could pro-ana and “thinspo” sites actually be good for women with eating disorders? A new study from Indiana University says yes. Researchers interviewed 33 bloggers from seven countries about their experiences in online eating disorder communities and found most believe these communities have been crucial to their eating disorder recovery.
“From the outside looking in, this looks like a really disturbing community, but I think that the fact that these women are able to find support from one another and find a place where someone understands what they’re going through is a really good thing,” said Nicole Martins, a telecommunications professor at IU.
“These communities are providing support, albeit supporting an illness that may result in someone’s death. But until they’re ready to go and seek recovery on their own terms, this might actually be a way of prolonging their life, so that they are mentally ready to tackle their recovery process.”
Those are some wise words right there, and a refreshingly non-judgmental perspective on a topic that many approach with histrionics.
It’s pretty laughable when social media sites like Pinterest and Tumblr try to ban “self-harm” or pro-ana content. The Internet is a big place, guys; on these sites or elsewhere, people will find a way to create and participate in these type of communities. And that alone should tell us something. If pro-ana communities were really just about pics of emaciated runway models and Miley Cyrus, they wouldn’t need to exist — there are pictures of super skinny women all over the Internet, the pages of magazines, the television and the world. Obviously there’s something more going on.
Is part of this about swapping eating disorder tips? Of course. But in addition — and to some extent, even the tip-swapping –it’s about building friendships, building community, building a support system. It’s about realizing that you are not the only one who feels and behaves this way. As a frequenter of pro-ana sites wrote in a recent essay here: ”I’m sure I picked up ED-fueling ‘tips,’ especially in the first couple of years, but isolation would have certainly triggered me toward possibly worse self-destructive actions.”
Back in my eating disordered days, the hub of the pro-ana community was on Livejournal — and oh, did I frequent it. I was in my first job out of college, sitting in front of a computer all day with very little actual responsibility and a lot of time to kill. I was 22, a mess of calorie-restricting and puking that didn’t approach the clinical criteria for either anorexia nervosa or bulimia, and way too old to still be feeling this way, I thought. I couldn’t talk to my boyfriend about it, I couldn’t talk to my friends about it and I certainly couldn’t talk to my family about it. The pro-ana Livejournal communities felt like a life raft.
In the IU study, the bloggers interviewed were exclusively female (none of the male bloggers the researchers contacted responded), ranging in age from 15 to 33. Two-thirds lived in the United States. Their primary motivation in blogging was seeking social support, according to the study. While real-life friends “lack the understanding of their situation,” online they are able to find “sympathy, understanding and encouragement” without judgment.
Of the 33 bloggers, 27 defined their eating disorder as a mental illness, six said it was a coping mechanism and only three called it a lifestyle.
“In other words, people living with eating disorders are not purposely making unhealthy or health-compromising decisions. They are trying to find the best way they can to live with this disorder,” the researchers wrote.
The answers to why individuals are attracted to pro-ana sites have little to do with the need to share a broad philosophy or outlook and may stem from the desire simply to belong to a safe community of individuals with similar experiences. They receive encouragement when they post about their weight loss success and comfort in bloggers’ comments when they fail in such efforts. Moreover, when a user wants to stop self-harm behavior or go into recovery, the community supports her choice too.”
Bloggers who were currently in recovery said that one of the reasons they still frequent pro-ana blogs is because recovery blogs are harder to come by.