An interesting and somewhat distrubing article from, “The Wave.”…
The Skeleton Crew
Inside the pro-anorexia movement’s underground web campaign
By Chris Bushnell
“Starvation is fulfilling. Colors become brighter, sounds sharper, odors so much more savory and penetrating that inhalation fills every fiber and pore of the body. The greatest enjoyment of food is actually found when never a morsel passes the lips.”
When it comes to losing weight, you can throw away that Weight Watcher’s sliderule and put your copy of The Zone in the shredder. If you want to sculpt the perfect body, then you need to jump on board the latest diet bandwagon: starvation. According to the creators of this anti-Atkins, after only a few days of not eating, you’ll not only look better… but you’ll feel better. That’s because food is evil, nutritionists are liars and the medical community is secretly trying to fatten up the already-plump American population.
Welcome to the warped world of the pro-anorexia (a.k.a. pro-ana) movement, an underground affiliation of websites devoted to aggressively promoting anorexia nervosa – that deadliest of all eating disorders – as a healthy alternative to the common diet. With names like Art of Reduction, Living on Oxygen and Hungry For Perfection, pro-anorexia websites are flourishing on the Internet, drawing thousands of daily readers and converting hundreds of confused young women into obsessive-compulsive skeletons.
“This is a pro-ana website. There are no victims here. If you regard ‘ana’ as a disease rather than a lifestyle or choice, it is strongly suggested that you leave this site immediately. Grow a spine if you don’t have a will, and get lost.” -Ana’s Underground Grotto
Like most pro-anorexia websites, Ana’s Underground Grotto uses a heavy dose of reverse psychology to lure in potential victims. Once sucked in by opening-page warnings that read more like dares, casual surfers are bombarded with propaganda that extol the virtues of voluntary starvation, and the will power necessary to stick with it. They’re also taunted by veteran anorexics who portray their illness as a badge of honor.
“Anorexia truly teaches that you can accomplish anything,” boasts 16 year-old “Tigerinpink,” webmaster of Nothing Tastes as Good as Thin Feels and a recent pro-ana convert. “But you can’t just be anorexic in one day. Those are known as ‘wannabe anorexics.’ Ana takes years to develop.”
Neophyte “ana’s” complete their initiations into the cult of skinny on pro-anorexia message boards like The Thin Page, which has logged over 480,000 messages in the last year. In these forums, the competition to lose weight is fierce, and girls are simultaneously made to feel welcome and shunned at the same time.
“The quest for perfection inspires some heated competition between these girls,” notes Dr. Vivian Hanson Meehan, President of the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). “That competition can be very destructive. And it’s that atmosphere of trying to see who is best that lures in people who wouldn’t otherwise be attracted to these behaviors.”
“SELF-CONTROL TIP #7: Find something that makes you feel vaguely ill or unpleasant, get a picture of it, and put the picture beside your food. Make sure to look at the pictures while you eat. After awhile you may begin to associate food itself with unpleasantness, which will make you less inclined to eat.” -Fat Like Me
Once a desperate dieter decides to dabble in anorexia, they’ll find a comprehensive online instruction manual for developing the disorder. Included among the vast “Tips and Tricks” sections are ways to fool your doctor into thinking you’re gaining weight (“hide rolls of coins in your underwear”), techniques to kill your appetite (“drink two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar”) and unique exercise advice (“constant fidgeting burns 800 calories a day”).
“Fidgeting in your seat to burn calories sounds fairly harmless,” warns Holly Hoff, Program Director for the National Eating Disorders Association. “But soon it starts to be such an important part of their lives and of their daily thought process that they become consumed.”
In addition to the hundreds of tips devoted to distraction from hunger, successful fasting and hiding the eating disorder from loved ones, are detailed guides to the many pills available. Anorexic Nation, one of the most popular pro-ana sites, has information on which over-the-counter medicines contain caffeine or ephedrine, in addition to advice on juggling laxatives, diuretics, amphetamines and other substances.
“I saw one tip that said, ‘Rather than eating, spend your money on drugs. That way you’re spending your money on drugs instead of food and you’re killing your appetite at the same time,’” notes Hoff. “I have a real problem with people recommending cocaine or heroin addiction rather than eating.”
“Many of the readers love the tips. They’re the best feature on my website,” says the 24 year-old webmaster of Anorexic Nation, “DiET pEpSi Uh Huh.” Ms. Pepsi chose her moniker because the soft drink is her primary source of nutrition. Her online journal reveals that her diet also includes a staggering 320 different pills a month. When asked about her consumption, she simply says, “I’d rather take pills than be fat.”
“DIET TRICKS: Take one or two aspirin a day. It raises metabolism. (Unconfirmed)… Less than six hours of sleep at nite stimulates your metabolism. (Unconfirmed)… Also, boiling chicken and turkey breasts to cook them helps ‘boil out’ some of the fat. (Unconfirmed)” -Totally in Control
While some of the advice given to converted anorexics by the pro-ana websites will help them meet their dangerous goals, much of it will not. The valuable tips are mixed indiscriminately with speculative science, guesswork nutrition and flat-out lies. Talking to the girls and women who run these sites, it becomes apparent that many of them aren’t clear where the information ends and the disinformation begins.
“The biggest lie is coming from the US Government and it is called the food pyramid,” says “Shapeshifter,” the anonymous 26 year-old creator of Ana’s Underground Grotto, one of the web’s more virulent pro-anorexia sites.
The Grotto offers up an alternative to the traditional four food groups. Instead of meat, dairy, grains and fruits/vegetables, the “Anorexic’s Food Pyramid” features smokes, coffee, pills and diet soda. [See illustration at left.]
“The USDA food pyramid is based around a 2,000 calorie per day diet. Let me tell you who needs 2,000 calories per day: a 210-pound man who wishes to remain 210 pounds,” says Shapeshifter, who has used anorexia to drop 65 pounds en route to a target weight of 93. “A 110-pound woman will gain 210 pounds after half a year of eating 2,000 calories per day.”
“This is nuts!” says Carolyn Costin, Director of the Eating Disorder Center of California. “First of all, I eat over 2000 calories a day and I am normal weight. Second, we feed our clients 2000 [calories] and up and we do not make any of our clients fat. In fact, many stay below the Metropolitan [Life Insurance] height and weight chart eating these calories.”
While the Met-Life charts represent the industry standard for evaluating body size, that hasn’t stopped a few pro-anorexia sites from publishing their own figures. Invisible Existence, one of the newest homes of the pro-ana movement, prints charts that suggest a woman who is 5’2” tall should weigh a maximum of 95 lbs. Other pro-ana sites feature skewed charts listing “ideal” wrist, calve and thigh sizes, and blank forms with which compulsive non-eaters can chart their deterioration.
Invisible Existence joins sites like Anorexia Wit’ Attitude and Paper Thin to promote the “2-4-6-8 Diet,” a plan in which the aspiring anorexic eats 200, 400, 600 or 800 calories a day, with optional fasting days in between. The 2-4-6-8 plan is supposed to stimulate metabolism by tricking the body into thinking that you are increasing your food intake while you maintain dangerously low calorie intake levels. Suffice to say, there is no evidence that such a program gives any of the desired results beyond sudden, drastic and potentially lethal weight loss.
“THE ANOREXIC PSALM: Strict is my diet. I must not want. It maketh me to lie down at night hungry. It leadeth me past the confectioners. It trieth my willpower. It leadeth me in the paths of alteration for my figure’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the aisles of the pastry department, I will buy no sweet rolls for they are fattening.” -Anorexic Addict
The pro-anorexia websites have given eating disorder experts a fascinating insight into the world of their patients. These portals reveal an obsession with the disease that has surprised even the most veteran eating disorder observers. Not only do many web-based anorexics personify their illness as “Ana” (or “Mia” for girls with symptoms of bulimia), but many of the sites promote anorexia as a religion.
The foundation of the pro-ana faith is a series of ten commandments (a.k.a The Thin Commandments). They include such gems as “#5: Thou shall not eat food without punishing oneself afterwards” and “#7: What the scale says is the most important thing.” Some sites expand on the theology theme, printing anorexia prayers, detailing sacrificial rituals, and even the extensive instructions necessary to summon Anamadim, the high goddess of starvation. For the record, Anamadim can only be summoned at 1:47am on the day of a New Moon.
“Some of these girls are using a religious angle to further lock their followers into this new lifestyle,” claims Dr. Meehan. “They need followers to justify their behavior.”
While not all pro-anorexia websites use religion as a means to convert new sufferers, nearly all the websites use some form of mental manipulation. For many sites, this manifests itself in the form of “trigger pictures.” Most pro-ana sites feature extensive picture galleries of emaciated supermodels, near-death anorexics and otherwise-healthy movie stars who have been retouched to look malnourished. At first the images are shocking, even repulsive. But after several viewings, the stark photographs inspire a morbid curiosity in viewers. Before long, girls are using the images as “Thinspiration” on days when they are tempted to eat.
“It’s just like an overweight person who puts pictures of models on their fridge to inspire them,” explains Costin. “When anorexics look at other anorexics, they feel competitive. The only problem is that the winner dies.”
“Most of those that whine about pro-ana sites are overweight, middle-aged housewives that don’t understand the concept of free speech. Some of those whining probably belong to ‘Big Beautiful Woman’ communities, which promote acceptance of your body, no matter what size. Well, what about accepting thin bodies?” -Thin is Beauty
In the summer of 2001, ANAD estimated that more than 400 pro-anorexia websites were being maintained on the web. In an effort to slash that number, ANAD began a fax campaign that eventually convinced Yahoo!, Angelfire and several other free web-hosting services to ban pro-anorexia sites. Citing a violation of terms of service, which require that hosted websites portray no danger to minors, Yahoo! de-listed more than 100 pages from its directory, and kicked another 200 off of their Geocities servers.
“I ran a pro-ana club with over 800 members and then Yahoo! deleted every one,” claims DiET pEpSi Uh Huh. “My website has been deleted by every free host but now it’s being privately hosted so now my site cannot be deleted.”
While the ANAD campaign successfully killed off a number of pro-ana forums, the effort has mostly backfired. With pro-ana sites no longer listed on the major search engines, recovery experts have a much more difficult time locating offending sites. And the webmasters who now have to pay for hosting have only become that much more dedicated.
“I will definitely continue to run my website,” says “Neona,” the 17 year-old founder of No Curves. “After all, pro-anorexia boards offer more support than pro-recovery boards. Pro-recovery boards tend to censor what is said.”
“Some say they want to offer one another support, but they’re not really supporting one another’s health and well-being,” says Hoff. “They’re supporting and encouraging the illness. They’re sharing tips. They’re exchanging strategies to trick family and friends into thinking they’re better when they’re not.”
No matter how many campaigns are launched to silence the pro-ana sites, the reality is that the pro-ana movement is here to stay. Most of the pro-anorexia webmasters refuse to concede that they suffer from a disease. Nearly all of them have been able to hide their hobby from family and friends. Simply put, typical pro-anorexia activists see nothing wrong with their actions.
“Anorexia is a choice. Having anorexia is like being a blind man,” says Tigerinpink. “You might be able to get surgery and see but using your other senses is your nature. It’s what you know and it’s what has worked, so why change it?”