Starbucks is bustling with people, as usual. Some are waiting in line to pick up their early-morning coffee while others sit at tables with their hands wrapped around what looks like a lukewarm take-out cup. But the woman sitting nearest to the entrance occupies a four-seater by herself, and what’s more, she doesn’t have a hot cup of something in her hands. Her eyes are fixated on the menu board, but instead of getting up, she reaches into her bag and pulls out a half-empty water bottle from which she sips every few minutes.
“I follow a five-hundred calorie diet. If I drink a vanilla latte, I have few calories left for dinner.” Grace, a twenty-year-old student, is a follower of a popular blogging site, one that encourages young women, or anyone for that matter, to lose weight. “This site gives me hope that I can survive off little amounts of food and reminds me that I’m not alone in this,” she says. “Reading these blogs puts me in the shoes of an anorexic person, and this helps me eat less.”
The author of this website is twenty-year-old Dawn Renee from Annaheim, California. She says that her blog, Ana Is Perfection, “represents her struggle with [her] eating disorder,” and that it helps her “look into a mirror and not hate what [she] see[s].” The site carries, aside from her daily blog posts, information about different dieting methods, one of which Grace follows religiously. Dawn’s blog is just one of many.
And yet there’s more to this website than conventional dieting tips. Pictures of measuring tapes, nutrition tables, and thin bodies with ‘too fat’ written across them don the first four pages of her blog posts, and her dieting tips even approve of fasting and purging. Dawn’s personal diet plan consists of a very low calorie intake of around five hundred calories, with a great amount of exercise.
“A pro-ana site by definition is saying that there really isn’t something pathological about living an anorexic life-style, says Psychologist Mark Cohen from BEC consulting. “Basically, what happens is that people read anything and they read it subjectively and not objectively. So when people want to believe something, they find material that supports their own beliefs. The best thing that can happen is for somebody to say you may want to be able to consider other possibilities here.
“People who are going to these sites are people who are looking for the information that they really seek, because the answer supports the continuing of they want to do what they’re already doing. People who do it are trying to justify a lifestyle that is unhealthy.”
But Dr. Cohen does not believe that the websites are the problem. “I don’t think the problem is social networking sites. I think social networking is a great thing, and there are social-networking sites helping people with recovery.”
Clinical psychologist Maria Rago Ph.D, of Linden Oaks Hospital at Edwards and author of Shut up, Skinny Bitches!,disagrees. She says that these “thinspiration” sites can lead to the development of an eating disorder. An eating disorder is defined by the DSM-IV as a “syndrome characterized by severe disturbances in eating behavior by distress, or excessive concern about body shape or weight.” The more common disorders that fall under this category are Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa.
Lisa Roylance (40), from London, was diagnosed with Bulimia Nervosa when she was twenty, and says that she is still struggling with it. She says that personal family problems triggered the symptoms and that it worsened, eventually leading to the development of Anorexia Nervosa, after the birth of her first child. Complications that came with giving birth to her currently fourteen-year-old daughter rendered her unable to conceive any more children.
Lisa admits that she visited a few “pro-ana” sites. “There’s an element of intrigue. I can understand why people who are desperate and desire inspiration want to be so thin,” she says. “Personally, I would not encourage anyone to visit these sites, as they do more damage than good.”
Dr. Rago agrees. She says that people go to these sites and are influenced to become thin, and that these sites encourage “pro-ana” behavior. “Pro-ana sites may be a site where people want to share their thoughts, but it is actually one of the factors that trigger the first signs of eating disorders, which is dieting,” she says. According to Dr. Rago, the authors of these blogs do not know the damage [these blogs] can do to people and do not realize that these blogs could lead, in serious cases, to death.