Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Secret Online World Of Eating Disorders

"Paint your nails to hide the discoloration," recommends one site, referring to a common side effect of eating disorders. And, "Sabotage your food! Adding tons and tons of salt will ruin the temptation to finish it." How about, "Purge in the shower! It is easier to clean up, covers up the noise, and helps you relax!" and "Hide a large cup in the bathroom to measure how much you've purged."
"If you have to eat, eat in front of a mirror. Naked," urges another.
One more lists reasons to be thin. "You don't need food!", "You'll be able to see your beautiful, beautiful bonesm" and "If you eat then you'll look like those disgusting, fat, ghetto and trailer-trash hookers on Jerry Springer," are just a few of those reasons.
It may sound like an urban legend, but these are tips found on real websites. Called Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia (Short for pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia), these sites claim to offer support for people with eating disorders.
Until recently, there were even more pro-ana/mia sites on the Internet, but as parents and professionals began to find out about them, many of the sites were shut down. They are still out there, though, for the determined person to find.
Several sites have banners that read, "Anorexia is not a disease, it's a lifestyle!" Some sites are almost hostile about defending this opinion. One more well-known site warns, "...if you regard "ana" as a disease rather than a lifestyle or choice, and especially if you see yourself as the victim of an eating disorder, in need of recovery, seeking recovery, or having recovered...So grow a spine if you don't have a will, and get lost."
And although many of these sites profess to be support groups for people with anorexia, and claim that they have no desire to "teach" anyone to be anorexic, the truth is that most of these sites posts lists of tips on how to lose more weight, how to purge more effectively, how to hide your eating disorder, etc. Many also have message boards where people can swap tips. There are weight charts where people can try to find out if they have reached their "ideal" weight, pages of "Thinspiration" featurinbg pictures of alarmingly thin models,poems and essays dedicated to eating disorders, and more.
For teens and young adults, one of the dangers of these sites is that if a person is even considering going to these types of extremes to lose weight, stumbling upon these sites can be just what they need to help them rationalize their decision. Those who are at risk of getting an eating disorder are teenagers and children who believe they are overweight and/or unattractive, who feel like they do not have enough control over their lives, and who have a lot of pressure and not a lot of positive support. These sites offer them everything they are looking for: Verification that, yes, they are overweight and unattractive, assurance that they can gain more control over their lives by practicing this "lifestyle," reassurance that nothing is wrong with this lifestyle, and acceptance by other people who are doing it.
Consider this scenario. A young girl, who is slightly overweight, and doesn't have a lot of friends at school, decides that she would be more popular if only she were thinner. Searching online for dieting tips, she comes across a "Pro-Ana" site offering some extreme dieting tips like, "Choose one item of food, like an apple, for the entire day. Cut it into four pieces, and you'll have breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack!" When she continues browsing the site, she begins to feel that she's discovered a secret club she can be part of... these mysterious Ana's and Mia's with their secret codes and their "supportive" messages to each other. Is it a stretch to think that the young girl may begin trying some of those "tricks and tips," skipping some meals, excercising impuslvely, and calling herself an Ana or a Mia?
Sure, the sites insist that anorexia is something you develop over time, and not something you just choose to start doing (which is sort of ironic, when you consider their view that anorexia is a lifestyle choice and not a disease.) They even have a name, "wannarexia," for people (mostly teenagers and pre-teens) who think eating disorders are glamorous and who "try" to develop them. But for kids who are vulnerable, and looking for a way to fit in, these websites invite them into a a very unhealthy lifestyle.
It is up to parents, relatives, mentors, and others who work with children to work to prevent kids from being sucked into that "lifestyle." Here are some key things you can do.


Adults should try to avoid critisizing their own appearance, because kids catch onto that. And, do not put down the child's, or anyone else's body, even jokingly. Even making a comment about the "thunder thighs" of someone on a TV show can give a child a message that weight is something to be ashamed of.
Avoid going on diets, also. Kids who watch the adults in their lives constantly trying out new diets or avoiding eating will get the message that this is part of what it means to be an adult.
Instead, focus on physical fitness. Keep wholesome, healthy foods around your house. If you're a mentor or another person who works with kids, skip the McDonalds and try new, more wholesome restaraunts instead. Get active with the child... encourage them to play on a sport, or go on frequent bike rides or hikes just for the fun of it.
And, if at all possible, regularly sit down for meals with the child. Many young people with eating disorders realize that it is easier to hide what they are eating (or not eating) when they are not expected to eat with anyone.
If you are a friend or relative of the child's, a mentor, or another person who works with children, you may be in an even better position than a parent to talk to the child. Many times kids are more open and honest with adults who are not their parents... Fear of being punished, of disappointing their parents, or of rejection, can make it hard for them to confront their parents.
Here are some questions you can ask kids, in a casual and non-accusing way:
"How do you feel about your weight?"
"When you look in the mirror, which parts of your body look best and worst and why?"
You might ask them if they know anyone who struggles with an eating disorder, and what the child thinks of it.
You could even ask them if they've ever heard of ANA/MIA. Be sure to keep the tone conversational, not as if you are interrogating the child.If the child knows about ANA/MIA, listen to his viewpoint on it. You could even go to the library and do Internet research on ANA/MIA, and talk about the different viewpoints you find.
If it seems possible or probable that the child does have an eating disorder, he will need medical and psychological attention. If you are not the child's parent, you can help out by offering to go with him to speak to his parents, or you could offer to speak to them for him.
Another problem with ANA/MIA websites is, sometimes kids and teens who have already started to get help for an eating disorder, will go to the sites because they are looking to meet others who are going through the same things as them. Discourage them from this. Although these sites do help connect people who have eating disorders, they also provide an open forum where the recovering child or teen may be encouraged to go back to their non-eating "lifestyle," or be criticized for giving in to their parents or not having enough "willpower" to resist the treatment for the eating disorder.
People recovering from eating disorders do need support, but it is better for them to find it in real-life support groups, especially those led by a therapist or other professional who can keep the group focused on their recovery.
You can learn more about eating disorders, and find treatment for eating disorders, at the National Eating Disorder Association.

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