By Sneha Kulkarni
On a bright Sunday morning a bored young housewife in her mid-twenties dishes out her advice for keeping thin to an aspiring marathon runner from the Maritimes.
“I gave away all my clothes that require me to weigh over 95 lbs,” she writes followed by an emoticon of a winking smiley face. “That way you have no choice but to lose those extra pounds.” In another chat room, more women of all ages discuss their strengths and failures in their obsessive quest for weight loss. “I made it through my first day – nothing but lettuce, Coke and tea,” the anonymous writer types, while adding a thumbs up icon. Other messages seeking “fasting buddies” and other tips of the trade follow.
These chat rooms and message boards are part of a growing online community of pro-anorexic and bulimic websites. Affectionately named “ana” and “mia”, these sites are created by women who advocate anorexia and bulimia as a lifestyle choice and want to provide a support group for women choosing not to go into recovery. With names like “Starving to Perfection” and “Dying to be Thin,” the sites provide users with tips, “thinspiration” galleries boasting pictures of gaunt- looking celebrities like Mary Kate Olsen, plus message boards and chat forums.
The sites began gaining popularity in the mid-to-late ’90s and almost instantly got backlash from the media. Calling them “horrific” and “unfathomable,” non-profit organizations like the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Eating Disorders, petitioned large web servers such as Yahoo and Angelfire to remove pro-anorexic and bulimic websites. The servers began to shut them down and today when searching Google or Yahoo under “pro-ana/mia”, many of the registered sites are no longer in service.
However, this has not stopped the pro-anorexia movement from continuing to gain strength by moving further underground. Listed in disguise under health, diet or support, these sites are still largely accessible to the public.
Pooja Kotecha once looked for this kind of support. Kotecha, 23, and a recovering anorexic, began battling the disorder in university at age 18. She felt overweight for her petite 5-foot frame. “I went from 140 to 120 [lbs] in two months, which is what I wanted in the first place, but I still thought I looked huge,” says Kotecha. She allowed herself only 400 calories and a minimum of three hours of exercise a day.
“It sounds sick, but it’s like you have to do it…You can’t have food inside you and you feel guilty if you do,” she says.
Ann Kerr, director of Sheena’s Place, a Toronto support group centre, explains that anorexia is much more than a desire to be thin; often it is a reaction to other pressures. “Eating disorders stem from all sorts of feelings like anger, depression, and anxiety. By not eating, these girls receive the social reward and recognition that perhaps they are lacking in their lives,” she says. Like many, Kerr doesn’t think the sites pose a threat to those trying to recover.
Ryerson psychology professor Michelle Dionne feels the media’s overblown coverage of the sites is unfair. “I don’t believe you can turn someone anorexic, just like you can’t turn someone into an alcoholic or schizophrenic just by having them read about it,” she says.
Although the sites do include tips, tricks and techniques such as “ice cream comes up easy, roughage doesn’t,” they also provide users with charts and tables that are actually advocated by today’s health professionals. These tools include body mass indexes, calorie counters and height/weight comparisons, which are used by physicians and nutritionists to help indicate what is deemed to be a healthy body weight. Dionne says while the public feels uncomfortable with this, the information is beneficial for those using the sites to engage in discussion about the disease rather than be silenced.
“Pro-ana or mia sites are a brave act, it’s like an act of courage or autonomy. Their identity is someone with an eating disorder and this is their way of coping,” she says.
Fiona Downie is a specialist in body image issues with Ryerson’s counselling services. She feels that the general media can be even more dangerous. “What about Cosmo or even Vogue? These magazines normalize overly thin body weight with their Hollywood stars and weight loss tips. Why aren’t people trying to petition against them?”
A svelte physique has become the norm portrayed by celebrities and supermodels plastered on the glossy pages of fashion and entertainment magazines. These “thinspiration” galleries, featuring the emaciated half-naked body of Kate Moss or the glamourous red-carpet photos of bony Calista Flockhart, give users an ideal to strive towards. And with the continuous growth in the diet industry, Downie says it’s no wonder that our perception of nutrition has changed. She has recently spearheaded a new therapy session at Ryerson that will help students suffering with body image issues to address their problems in a relaxed, supportive group setting. Anorexia and bulimia are characterized as lonely diseases. These support groups offer students a comfortable and safe environment to discuss their problems with others and see that they are not alone. Downie feels that the sessions will mainly help the students reduce stress and anxiety through meditation and cognitive therapy. “Students fall into eating disorders because they are characteristically a very driven group” she says, explaining that the long hours, pressures from school, being separated from home, and an unhealthy diet are all factors that can lead to the illnesses.
The sites may keep women living with eating disorders from seeking help, but they provide the social support and companionship that people with the disease lack. The sites are a way for them to have their voices heard and Dionne worries that shutting them down may cause more problems than solutions.
“We don’t achieve anything from shutting down the sites,” she said. “Eating disorders have been around long before the Internet was invented.”