The pro-anorexia sites that offer deadly 'thinspiration'

Eating disorders are on the rise, and pro-anorexia sites only act to encourage dangerous behaviour.

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Fact File
  • 500,000 The number of people who visited pro-anorexia sites in the past year

Living with an eating disorder is not a lifestyle choice.

No child has ever said “When I grow up, I want to lie in a hospital bed for weeks on end being fed through a tube, stripped of my freedom on every possible level.” There is nobody to blame and there never will be.

'Pro-ana' websites, however, are often blamed for the continuous increase in cases of anorexia and bulimia, especially in young girls. Research published this week found 400 to 500 websites which promote anorexia and bulimia, each receiving thousands of hits every day.

We've seen and heard enough about 'pro-ana' websites to have a fair idea of what they are. You may even have visited them out of curiosity or even as a 'user'. I'll spare the detail because part of the problem is that in reporting on this subject, many publications go a few steps too far and actually give away the absurd, stupid and often dangerous tips and messages that these websites unashamedly dish out to vulnerable visitors. It seems completely illogical for a 'journalist' to report on the extreme dangers of these websites and the behaviours that they encourage, only to illustrate their piece with images taken directly from the 'thinspiration' galleries of those websites – but somehow, many do and see no problem in or consequence of doing that.

I wasn't sure whether or not to even comment on this, the first review of its kind with an aim to somehow quantify the subject . I have always worried that bringing attention to pro-ana websites could be detrimental and actually provoke more people to visit the sites. There's a tendency, especially among women, to read about something like this and then out of morbid curiosity go in search of whatever it is we are being warned against. I shouldn't make presumptions though; as far as I know there have been no studies into male/female visitors to pro-ana websites so who knows? I do know from my own research (as much as I absolutely loathe to look at these sites) that there seems to be an increasing demand on whoever runs these sites to provide visitors with both female and male 'thinspiration'. It's safe to say this is something which clearly has an impact on both sexes.

I have always been adamant that pro-ana sites do not cause eating disorders and found for the most part that most people I know who have or have had an eating disorder claimed not to have visited these sites; many not even having heard of thinspiration or any of those ridiculous quotes that go alongside them. You know the ones, and if you don't, be glad. This was refreshing, though, and I felt hopeful for a long time that pro-ana sites were not really a huge part of the problem; anorexia was far more complex than a web-page put together by a 16-year-old in his/her bedroom. I was wrapped up in my own eating disorder and felt smug knowing that I wasn't affected by those stupid websites because I was ill through my own doing and not easily influenced enough to be sucked into this pro-ana world... I did it myself. I dismissed even the thought that, while these websites might not have an impact on me, they could be harming many others.

What this research revealed is actually really scary. Over 500,000 people visited pro-ana sites in the last year and an EU survey found that more than one in five 6 to 11-year-olds had been exposed to one or more sites with “harmful content”. This isn't something that I can just dismiss as I have for years, too proud to accept that 'us' anorexics could be associated with something so shocking and, on the surface, so vain and self-obsessed and selfish. The truth is that these websites are seen by thousands and, increasingly, the pro-ana community has spilled out of its own self-contained sites and into social media sites. There are groups, disturbing hashtags and prolific individuals looked up to as skinny goddesses appearing all over Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest and pretty much anywhere else they can spread their foul message that 'thin is in'.

Of course, there is no proof of the damage directly caused by pro-ana sites, but it is undeniable that the content is seen by hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom are vulnerable, perhaps lonely and therefore likely to sign up to something where they are made to feel part of a community. The pro-ana community quite often appears to be friendly, welcoming and even mask themselves as a 'safe place' where people with 'like-minds' can 'support' each other. They quickly become highly competitive and addictive, offering a whole world where anorexia or bulimia are not only accepted, but encouraged; right to the hospital ward and sometimes to the grave. This is real and it is dangerous. These sites promote dangerous behaviours, many akin to slow suicide – something HAS to be done.

If online child porn rings or terrorist plots can be tracked, traced and dealt with accordingly, why can't pro-ana? I am not in any way saying that this is on the same level, only illustrating the fact that if the technology is there, why not use it to protect vulnerable internet users?

If a person types the word 'suicide' into a search engine, the options that appear direct them to charities and helplines; the Samaritans, Mind, the calm zone and articles on suicide prevention. Unfortunately, some pro-suicide sites still do exist, but in much smaller numbers that are harder to find than their pro-ana counterparts. Can the same not be done to direct those looking for pro-ana sites to a more helpful alternatives? Am I just living in a dream world? Will these sites always exist?

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