Anorexia Goes High Tech

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A pro-anorexia web site

Developing an eating disorder is no easy task. Becoming an anorexic, for example, requires months, even years, of obsessive, destructive tunnel vision. Anorexia demands absolute, single-minded dedication. It's exhausting — and it can be extraordinarily lonely.

Thatís where technology comes in. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, anorexics and would-be anorexics around the globe can access more than 400 web sites designed solely for them. Need to know how to disguise your weight loss so concerned (read: jealous) friends will stop hounding you to eat? Looking for a few words of support as you launch into your latest deprivation diet? Or perhaps youíd like to know the tricks for satisfying that pesky weekly weigh-in at the doctorís office? Itís all right here.

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Bringing the darkness to light

Beyond their obvious "ick" factor, the sites provide a fascinating insight into the world of anorexics. For eating disorder educators, the very language of the sites can provide invaluable hints into a troubled psyche. "I think some of these sites are worded in a way that indicates the hosts do want help," says Vivian Meehan, president and founder of the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, or ANAD. "Theyíre putting themselves out there. But then they also put up a defense against it. Donít come on the site if youíre only interested in putting us down."

That psychology plays out almost to the letter on one of the most visible pro-anorexia sites (or "pro-ana," as devotees call them), known as "My Goddess Ana." Accused in the press of perpetuating a deadly disease, the siteís 20-year-old creator offers this reply. "The opening page of the site clearly stipulates that the content of the site is Pro-Anorexic and should not be viewed by those who are in recovery or are thinking about recovery, or who, indeed, do not suffer from an ED. If you are reading this as an objector to Pro-Ana sites, why did you enter in the first place when the entrance page has told you not to?"

Can you handle this?

She has a point, however flimsy her logic. The siteís warning is straightforward and bracingly honest: "This is a PRO-ANOREXIC site," it reads. "The information in the following pages contains pro-anorexic material. For this reason, it should NOT be viewed by anyone who is in recovery or who is considering recovery."

"Please," the warning continues, "if you do not already have an eating disorder, turn back now. If you are in recovery, turn back now. Anorexia is a deadly disease. It is not to be taken lightly." It sounds like good, responsible advice — until you consider the effects of a warning like that on the psychology of anorexia. People, especially young women, suffering from anorexia tend to be perfectionists dead set on gaining approval. They want to smooth down all the rough edges, make sure everyone (except themselves) is happy, be exactly the kind of person everyone expects them to be. Itís a very tough mindset to maintain, and you can only do it if youíre willing to suffer (which anorexics are only too happy to do) and if you can be strong in the face of adversity (i.e. food and the people who are trying to get you to eat).

"Stay strong!"

In other words, if youíre a young woman on the verge of anorexia, and you visit this site and read the warning, chances are youíre going to see it as a dare. Think of anorexia as the negative marathon of eating disorders: If it were easy, everyone would do it, and then what kind of cachet would it have?

Once past the warning screen, visitors are exhorted to "Stay strong!" (in the face, one presumes, of parents, friends or doctors who are pushing food on them). Itís a bizarre dichotomy of messages, and it forms the crux of this phenomenon. Yes, the hosts seem to be saying, this site is dangerous, and it could be harmful to your health. On the one hand, we accept that we are sick, that we have an eating disorder and we are not interested in spreading our illness. On the other, we are proud of our illness — and once youíve joined our ranks, weíll do whatever it takes to enable your quest for the "perfect" body.

This labored enthusiasm serves as a red flag to eating disorders educators like Meehan. "One of the primary goals of anorexics is to persuade others that they are perfectly fine, and that they have the right to lead their lives however they see fit," says Meehan. "And one of the ways of doing that is to find other people who are achieving those goals — so these web sites provide not only reinforcement, along with a forum for exchanging and picking up tips."

The eye of the beholder

Itís not just about tips, though. Throughout the sites, visitors are bombarded by images of waif-thin models and movie stars. Some have been altered to appear emaciated. Others are, perhaps even more disturbingly, left untouched. Either way, the effect is immediate: Revulsion followed by a kind of morbid fascination. How on earth did she get to be that thin? Then, clicking away, moving on to the next screen, a barrage of "Thinsprirations," as one site names its pro-thin quotes. ("Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels," reads one.)

The problem, of course, is that most of the minds visiting these sites are not exactly in peak psychological condition. And many of the sites, with their rosy color schemes and celebrity slide shows, are designed to appeal to the most vulnerable population: Recent studies indicate that 85 percent of anorexics experience the first onset of illness by age 20 — and theyíre only getting younger. Researchers have noted a marked increase of cases in the eight to 11-year-old age range over the past five years.

Kids in that age range (perhaps not coincidentally) are also spending more and more time in front of computers, educators note, a trend that leaves them especially susceptible to the proliferation of pro-anorexia sites.

Battling an Internet giant

According to ANAD, Yahoo! hosts by far the most pro-anorexia sites of any web portal. Searching for "anorexia" on the home page produces pages of results; some are pro-recovery, but many others promote the cycle of starvation. The portalís predominance has not gone unnoticed by mental health advocates.

On July 26, citing Yahoo!ís ability to take down any site they choose, as well as the companyís self-described commitment to the safety of adolescents and children, ANAD asked Terry Semel, the portalís CEO, to remove the pro-anorexia sites from its server. "The fact is that most people who become anorexic first experience symptoms before they are eighteen," says ANAD vice president Christopher Athas. "Yahoo! claims to be interested in the health and welfare of children? Hereís a good chance to prove it."

The response surprised even ANAD. By Monday, July 30th, 21 of Yahoo!ís estimated 115 pro-anorexia sites had been taken down. While no one at ANAD is willing to link the action directly to their letter of complaint, organization leaders sent off a note thanking Semel for his quick action.

Yahoo! sees things a bit differently. "The removal of the sites was definitely not a reaction to the ANAD request," a company spokesperson said Tuesday. She went on to explain the "long-standing terms of service" at Yahoo!, and outlined the consequences for anyone who violates them (which pro-anorexic sites certainly seem to do). "Content with the sole purpose of creating harm or inciting hate is brought to our attention, we evaluate it, and in extreme cases, remove it, as that is a violation of our terms of service."

Whatever the impetus, the sitesí removal was a victory for ANAD, but it hardly signals the end of its crusade. The next step, says Athas, goes straight to the heart of the problem: The sitesí authors themselves, most of who seem to be enthusiastic anorexics. "Weíre planning to go to the sites and ask the creators to take them down," Athas says. That task — which will force ANAD educators to confront anorexicsí infamous defensive talents — is not expected to be easy, or even particularly productive, adds Athas. "Most everyone has told us it will be a waste of our time."