Imagine a 13-year-old girl. She is seated on the floor of a small room, clothes and textbooks piled around her. Instead of the poster and magazine cutouts of famous teenage boys and young male actors, the wall behind her is an inspiration pin board to thinness. Models slump and strut on legs as long and thin as balloon threads. Their heads seem especially large above prominent collarbones; their waists are the waists of paper dolls. Hip bones protrude beneath clothing. But the girl is not looking at these. She is staring into the abyss that has become her laptop. What she sees on the screen is only different from the wall behind her in that it seems to repeat into infinity — and the girls are not models. When she watches the screen, she says she feels less alone in her misery. She has been starving herself now for weeks.
The videos are all the same. Click play. A song starts—something poppy but toned down. It’s meant to evoke sadness, but even if the music were upbeat (sometimes it is), the images would soon confuse the message. They come, one after the other, a montage of girls with stick-like limbs, bone-bridged torsos, long, sad faces. Sometimes there are celebratory before-and-after photos, but the girl in the “before” photo looks somehow happier than the one in the “after.” She’s managed to lose a significant percentage of her body weight — which was her goal — but she no longer glows. She doesn’t smile in the “after” image even though her purpose is to “inspire” other girls with her growing thinness.
Thinspiration, Thinspo, Pro-Ana
Comparison is common currency among young people; it is believed to be formative to identity development at these stages. I am taller than you; You are smarter than I am; I am fatter than you. This law of social relativity explains why adolescent self-concepts are changing all the time. But what happens when the reflected images are inaccurate? When they are so distorted they begin to do permanent harm? This is the force behind the pro-ana movement. Pro-ana is one of many names for the mushrooming subculture of websites, weblogs and message boards that exist for the purpose of promoting anorexia and bulimia nervosa. Anorexia is sometimes shortened to “ana” and bulimia to “mia,” and often users humanize them. Rather than a disease in need of treatment, Ana or Mia is a friend who knows what’s best for you but is hard to placate.
The girls who create and view these videos say they do so as much to support one another as they do to promote their beliefs about the way their bodies should look. One young woman called “Lizzy” spoke with WebMD about the Thinspiration website she’d created (it has since been taken down). She wrote:
There’s part of me that realizes how bad this disease is for me, and another part that says I have to be thinner no matter what. That’s the side that’s usually in the most control.
But my website is about both sides. I want people to read the sections about how it’s not all fun and games. Anorexia is not just being skinny: It’s physical and emotional hell. I don’t want people to think it’s all so simple and so light. It’s not glamorous.
Lizzy’s words seem to capture the essence of the majority of the pro-ana websites.
First, Do No Harm
Among these sites, comments from posters wishing to protect themselves from others’ judgments are nearly as common as the images of bone-thin women and girls.
“If you don’t like my video, then you don’t have to watch or comment! Nobody’s making you watch. I’m not hurting anybody.”
But is she?
Do the posters — the creators of pro-ana/pro-mia posts, blogs, vlogs and websites — have the power to do real harm? They post because they appear to suffer in the stranglehold of anorexia/bulimia, and wish to connect with others. They extend tips on how to hide signs of weight loss or vomiting, and offer inspiration in the way of images and videos that promote thinness.
In an analysis on WebMD, Doug Bunnell, Ph.D., says they are doing harm. He makes the hypothetical analogy of cancer patients or people with diabetes promoting their illnesses above their treatments; we’d all agree this was unethical and dangerous. But the members of the pro-ana movement say they are simply promoting a lifestyle choice and have the right to do so. This, of course, denies the reality that anorexia and bulimia nervosa are physical and mental illnesses; they must be treated or they can lead to further injury, even death.
Spread The Word – Eating Disorders Are Dangerous And Treatment Is Necessary
We need only look at the statistics to know whether we should be concerned. Up to 24 million people are believed to suffer from eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder), though only one in 10 will receive treatment. Eating disorders have also been found to have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Any social media used to inspire such a deadly and undertreated disorder can only be seen as destructive, and alarmingly so.
Not every cry for help is conscious. These young women, and many young men, suffer the affliction of wanting to take up less space while wanting more than ever to be noticed. It’s as if they are saying: Please watch us as we disappear.
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