A New Type of Internet Predator
Stacey, also known in the chat room as "cagedandalone", has a secret only "fat_like_me" and "perfectionism101" know.
Most people envy Stacey's achievements: a 4.0 grade point average, charity work and church activities. They see a bright, beautiful girl with a promising future. But that's not what Stacey sees.
Her reflection is fat, ugly and grotesque.
Feeling ignored by her parents, she seeks comfort in the chat room of her favorite Web site, sometimes spending two hours a day talking with other girls just like her. She posts favorite photographs and even writes original poetry and music.
While this sounds like a benign, even healthy way for Stacey to spend her free time, she and thousands of other teenagers are traveling down a path of destruction.
The Web site Stacey frequents promotes eating disorders.
What is a pro-ana Web site?
Simply put, pro-anorexic (pro-ana) or pro-bulimic (pro-mia) Web sites encourage its online community to adopt anorexia or bulimia as a lifestyle. These sites keep their visitors coming back with advice, chat rooms and message boards. Each part of an ED (eating disorders) site champions the pro-ana/mia creed: I believe in bathroom scales as an indicator of my daily success.
So why do some teens find solace in an ED site?
Janice Van Anrooy, a licensed therapist who works with teens suffering from eating disorders, suggests a number of reasons but none bigger than the relationship a child has with her parents.
"The more parents shame [them], the more likely they will retreat to the [Web] sites," she says. "It becomes a safe haven for them."
Van Anrooy also says the media defines how females and males view their bodies. Madison Avenue, Hollywood, Motown and Cosmopolitan send messages glorifying slimness. As evidence to this, Pro-ana/mia Web site creators proudly display images of Kate Moss and other celebrities, lifting dangerously thin actresses up as models of perfection. Pro-anas even defend their message under the guise of feminism.
One Web site posted this justification: "Key ideas are strength, will, achievement, fulfillment; eating disorders are portrayed as a means of achieving perfection and of forming an elite group of humans who have successfully mastered their bodies".
Community is the single biggest attraction. Every girl listens and validates each others' feelings. It's empowering. What the "Staceys" of the world fail to recognize is that this type of encouragement does more harm than good.
"These sites are not about recovery," says Lynn Grefe of the National Eating Disorders Association. "These sites are about reinforcement of an illness, saying €˜Let's be sick together.'"
And in cyberspace, where teenagers sometimes need medical treatment more than a listening ear, too many are literally wasting away.
The anatomy of a pro-ana Web site
These days, most pro-ana Web sites include a disclaimer page to warn visitors:
"This is a site for those who already have an eating disorder and do not wish to go into recovery €¦.If you do not already have an eating disorder, it is better that you do not develop one now. You may wish to leave."
Beyond the disclaimer, site owners use popular Web site tools to lure and preserve their audience:
- Message boards, blogs and chat rooms. Pro-ana visitors exchange tips on how to purge "safely" and how to hide an eating disorder from family and friends. "I think if you're going to [purge], then you might as well be as safe as possible," suggests one site owner.
- Journals, music, poetry and photography. Journals chronicle everything from feelings of loneliness to hopelessness and despair, but many visitors find solace through creativity. Used as triggers, photos of emaciated women discourage eating.
- Dieting tips. Many pro-anas post messages about how to achieve a 100-calorie day. One suggested "meal" was a stock cube and hot water. Another site creator advised eating altogether until near unconsciousness. "See how long you can make it each time," she suggests.
- Secret symbols. A mere $25 will buy a pro-ana bracelet a sign of solidarity and choice. Red stands for anorexia, purple represents bulimia and black and blue symbolize self-mutilation.
More dangerous than bracelets or dieting tips is the underlining message: Embrace your eating disorder. But pro-ana/mia teens hop on a slippery slope to serious medical or psychological problems.
"[Pro-ana/mia Web site creators] want others to join them because they believe in their heart of hearts that there is no recovery or cure," Van Anrooy says. "And there is a point where the eating disorder voice takes over €¦making it difficult to distinguish from the wise, sensible voice that encourages recovery and healthy behaviors.
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