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Pro-Anorexia Web Sites Prey on Insecurities

Many girls with eating disorders turn to pro-anorexia web sites, where they find peer support but usually little help in treatment and recovery.
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WebMD Feature

My Princess Ana, Fragile Innocence: The cutesy names disguise the dark agenda of pro-anorexia web sites and message boards.

On these sites, "Ana" means anorexia and "Mia" is bulimia. For many, "Ana" is a friend or enemy they all have in common.

Pro-anorexia web sites are controversial -- providing "how-to" sections on purging, tips and tricks on food avoidance, pro-ana chat rooms, distractions from hunger, "thinspiration" pictures of emaciated women and girls, and "LEAVE" messages for anyone who is anti-ana.

"There's no question that these sites have the potential to be quite harmful ... harmful not only to people with eating disorders, but to other vulnerable young women," says Doug Bunnell, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Wilton, Conn., with the National Eating Disorders Association.

With young girls, peer pressure is important -- and the web sites prey on that need, says Nancy Graham, LCSW, director of clinical outreach with Renfrew Center, an eating disorder treatment facility.

"The girls look to others for support," Graham tells WebMD. "They stick together. I've heard it from school counselors -- the girls group together, and it's 'we'll all go and purge after lunch together.' It's hard to break through that to get them to recovery."

Shutting Down Sites

Over the last few years, media attention and efforts by anti-anorexia groups helped shut down over 100 such sites -- only to be replaced by new sites. This "illustrates the resilience of the women who seek them out and recreate them," writes researcher Karen Dias, a counselor in Vancouver, British Columbia, who specializes in eating and body image issues.

Her paper appears in the online Journal of International Women's Studies.

"Most sites make it clear that their purpose is to support those who are struggling with an eating disorder, and to provide a space, free from judgment, where they can share ideas and offer encouragement to those who are not yet ready to recover," writes Dias.

Dias quotes letters posted by readers: "Dear Ana, I feel trapped by you. ... Where is the love you promised? The acceptance? When will I feel like I'm finally in control? Why is it that the more I control what I eat and weigh, the more out of control I feel? As I peel away the layers of fat, the old problems resurface ... the depression, the loneliness, the cutting, the insomnia."

Such narratives "illustrate women's struggles, emotional pain, and searching for acceptance and connection, as well as an ambivalence towards recovery," writes Dias.

Many Hidden Agendas

In fact, the web sites have a spectrum of agendas, Bunnell tells WebMD. "Some are 'way out there,' offering tips on how to get rid of food. Others are more mainstream and encourage people to get treatment. With others, there is intent to promote recovery -- but there will also be a pro-anorexic subgroup in that web site."

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