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“Anorexia is a lifestyle, not a disease”. How pro-anorexia sites are impacting body image in teens

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“Infinity is so damn sweet
Your mortal earth cannot compete
Starving for the other shore
I will not eat!
Say it loud
& say it now
I’m anorexic
& I’m proud.”

This disturbing poem features on the website ana’s underground grotto. As with several other websites just like it, it dishes out a variety of dangerous information regarding weight loss, tips for hiding an eating disorder from family and friends, and how to ‘purge’-  plus images of models and other skinny body types to endorse the ‘thinspiration’ trend.

Out of the 1.6 million people in the UK who are affected by an eating disorder, around two-thirds have visited such sites.  Data from the health and social care information centre (in 2013) revealed an 8% rise in hospital admissions for eating disorders. This surge has been attributed to Pro-ana websites which are promoting a serious mental illness as a lifestyle choice.

According to Dr. Bryan Lask, medical director for eating disorders at Charity Care UK, social media is a very important part of his patients’ lives. He explains: “Eating disorders are genetically-determined, but the society in which we live – which creates thinness as an ideal – plays a major contributing role,” He adds: “I have one patient who spends many hours a day blogging about her experiences. I have others who spend many more hours reading other people’s blogs. It becomes their lives. It’s an escape from the inner pain and the confrontation of the external world.”

The influence of social media on body image has become an important debate.  With the increase in internet use among teens, it is not surprising that the issue has gained serious significance in recent years.

In one study which examined both pro-recovery sites and pro-eating disorder websites, the researchers found that many teens had a pre-existing condition, and that viewing Pro- ana websites often negatively impacted one’s body image, even if it was not the original intent.

What are pro-anorexia websites?

Before we can begin to examine the impact of the internet or social media on body image or eating disorders, we must fully understand Pro-ana websites and the motivation behind them. As with any mental illness, Anorexia and Bulimia lead to serious psychological disturbances, often accompanied by depression, anxiety and damaged self-esteem. Anyone who suffers from these illnesses is in an extremely vulnerable position, which leaves them more susceptible to outside influences.

The word ‘pro-ana’ meaning pro-anorexia, was created by young women who have anorexia or bulimia, or are in recovery from one or both of the disorders. Eating disorders have been reclaimed through vocabulary, with terms like ana and mia becoming extremely popular ways to describe this serious mental health condition.

Several websites have been built around the notion that anorexia and bulimia are not diseases but rather ‘choices’ and don’t require treatment. While there is some debate about the extent to which these sites do any real harm, most experts agree that such websites can be seriously damaging to young people who are mentally unstable and have a skewed body image.

Most pro-anorexia sites include the following disclaimer on their homepage

This site does not encourage that you develop an eating disorder. 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, better it is that you do not develop one now. You may wish to leave.
(ana-by-choice.com)

What is most disturbing is the empathetic approach taken by these sites. Presumably, this is intended to lure young women who have serious doubts about their weight and appearance, or are already suffering from serious mental and emotional problems. At first glance, the sites appear to be helpful, informative and seek to support girls struggling with eating disorders. Delve a little deeper and you quickly realise that the ultimate objective is to promote an unnatural ‘thinness’ and unhealthy ‘dieting advice’. The websites are flooded with images of women who are dangerously thin, very often celebrities who have either been diagnosed with an eating disorder or photoshopped into looking like they have one.

Body image in popular media

The issue of media influence on appearance and body image has been around since the first TV commercial was shot, or probably even before that, when the first print ad portrayed a woman of ‘perfect appearance’. While this phenomenon is nothing new, it has been catapulted into a much more serious issue with the advent of the technology and the internet- especially via platforms solely dedicated to pictures, images and videos. The ideal body type and the ‘perfect face’ have been largely redefined in the last decade, with the selfie craze at the helm of this revolution.

From perfectly sized models, and flawless celebrities, young people are bombarded with unrealistic notions of beauty and perfection. With the increasing development and use of interactive social media platforms, we are no longer passive consumers of media – there is no escaping the constant trends that relate to body image and appearance.

Case in Point

The thinspiration trend

“If you have time to complain, then you have time to train”.  This is one of the slogans associated with the the ‘thinspiration trend’, a campaign meant to encourage young women to achieve the ideal body type. This is often shared in the form of images and photos of women who possess these ‘ideal’ body types.

The thinspiration trend has become serious enough for Pinterest to start posting a warning regarding eating disorders. When a user types in specific search terms, such as thinspiration, the search results are headed by a banner reading – “Eating disorders are disorders that if left untreated can cause serious health problems or could even be life-threatening. Also, the popular platform Instagram posted a ban on pro-anorexia content earlier this year –unfortunately though, researchers suggest this may have made the problem worse.

For an educator, the task of protecting children and teens from exposure to damaging content online can be extremely challenging, given that they have access on various devices. However, you can monitor your students’ internet activity at school and ensure they are safe from potential harm. Get in touch with us to find out more. Securus software solution is aimed at protecting children and teens, and safeguarding them from online dangers.

 

 

Greg Johnson
Greg Johnson

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