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Pro-ana

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Pro-ana, short for "pro-anorexia," is a movement and ideal that supports anorexia as a lifestyle choice. The equivalent for the related disorder, bulimia, is known as pro-mia, though pro-bul[l] might be more appropriate.

These sites offer social support to people who may need friends, but that community support is focused on the drive to stay ill. "They might initially help people to feel less isolated but the community that they create is an unhealthy community... In reality they offer no life affirming support and have the potential to be hugely destructive," warns the eating disorder group Bodywhys.[1]

Communities[edit]

Pro-ana groups work very much like a cult religion... What initially was viewed as very shocking has now become familiar and neutralized.
—Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, MEd[2]

Pro-ana and pro-mia websites often consist of communities of sick people. They typically do not seek to recruit people, but instead provide a community for those who do not want to get better and consider their illness to be a "lifestyle choice."[3]

These websites often include a lot of user-submitted content, with topics like:[4]

  • Weight loss tips
  • Quotes encouraging starvation (e.g. "I love you to the bones")
  • Statements encouraging pride and superiority in dangerous eating habits
  • Hunger suppression tips
  • Tips on how to vomit and hide it
  • Tips on hiding an eating disorder from doctors and family members
  • "Thinspo," or "thinspiration," which usually consists of photos of sickly underweight women
  • "Reverse thinspo," or pictures of heavy people or "junk" food meant to invoke feelings of disgust
  • Religious metaphors and spiritual language (such as treating food as a sin and thinness as transcendence)

While some content discusses the drawbacks of eating disorders, most of them glorify the conditions and discourage seeking help.[3]

When you are in the middle of it and don't want to give it up, you cling to these sites that tell you what you are doing is OK. Recovery is hard, staying sick isn't, so it's easier to hide behind these sites claiming that you are making a lifestyle choice, rather than admitting that you are sick and trying to get better
—Andrea Schneider, eating disorder survivor who was hospitalized at least 15 times[5]

At times, claims and "tips" from pro-ana sites can descend into seeming parody, such as advice that "[a]t a certain weight ... you will lose your period. This is a good thing because it means that you’re losing weight." Other advice is downright scary, such as tips on how to hide anorexia from your doctor.[6]

Sometimes these communities peddle "pro-ana" and "pro-mia" bracelets in red or purple. These bracelets are meant to signal belonging to the community and to encourage them to keep up their dangerous behavior.[7]

Put simply, eating disorders are serious and potentially fatal mental illnesses, not lifestyle choices. Pro-ana is a denial mechanism for people who are scared of that fact.

Mainstream presence[edit]

Pro-ana slogans and rhetoric have often caused miniature storms amongst modern mainstream media outlets, who are starting to realise after a few decades that it's wrong to make people want to resemble cocktail sticks.

In 2009, supermodel Kate Moss caused (understandable) ire after she said one of her mottos was "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels."[8]

T-shirts reading "Eat Less" and "Nothing Tastes As Good As Skinny Feels" (as endorsed by professional inexplicable entity Perez Hilton) were pulled following a public backlash.[9]

A reporter went undercover in a WhatsApp pro-ana group. The group demanded that she follow certain rules (such as calorie limits) to avoid being kicked out. When the reporter claimed to have binged, the other girls urged her to vomit or over-exercise.[10]

In 2020, TikTok received criticism for showing pro-ana content to users in its "For You" page—even showing it to people who had previously struggled with eating disorders and were now trying to stay healthy.[11][12]

Effects[edit]

About a third of patients with eating disorders have used these websites. When it comes to the dangers of these sites, there are two big things that we need to think about: one is that these sites might induce an eating disorder [in vulnerable people] or maybe if you already have an eating disorder, these sites make it difficult to recover.
—Helen Sharpe[13]

A 2006 study found that teens with eating disorders who use pro-ana and pro-mia websites have longer recovery times and more hospitalizations than teens with eating disorders who didn't. Another study found that these sites negatively impacted self-esteem, self-efficacy, and mood.[2]

Even people without eating disorders can be harmed by these sites. A study of female college students with no eating disorder history found that they adopted food restriction practices based on the site's advice and had "strong emotional reactions" to the sites; these habit changes lasted for weeks after the study ended.[14]

Oddly enough, one research study found that people referred to a pro-ana website (via ads) were much less likely to engage in pro-ana and self-harm internet searches, and were also more likely to make searches related to getting treatment.[15]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

References[edit]

Note: Some of these contain potentially triggering content that is not recommended for people who are at risk for eating disorders.