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Home » Hacking News » Online sites give pro-anorexics secret supporters

Online sites give pro-anorexics secret supporters

by Nikola Strahija on July 17th, 2001 While doctors are hard at work treating and trying to prevent anorexia, girls with the disease are busy setting up websites that urge their peers to resist the treatment. These pro-anorexia websites have doctors, parents and recovering anorexics upset.<

The websites and cyberspace clubs have names like "My Friend Anna," "Only Popular with Anorexia," "Pro Ana Sanctuary," "aNOreXiC WaNNa B" and "StickThinPixies."

Their descriptions are even more pointed: "The Best Place for Anorexic Tips!", "Pro-Ana: Join Us and become PERFECT!", "Anorexia is a lifestyle or friend, not a disease.", "Share Tips, Tricks, Stories, Motivation, Inspiration, Venting, Anything and Everything Ana!!!"

While doctors are hard at work treating and trying to prevent anorexia, girls with the disease are busy setting up websites that urge their peers to resist the treatment. These pro-anorexia websites have doctors, parents and recovering anorexics upset.

"Websites like this may not increase the incidence of anorexia, but I believe that clinically, if a girl is anorexic, sites like these will actually compromise her recovery," says Denver psychologist Joan Pinhas, co-president of Eating Disorder Professionals of Colorado, who specializes in treating people with eating disorders.

The Eating Disorders Association estimates the Web contains at least 400 pro-ana sites and chatrooms. Finding them is as easy as typing "anorexia + chat" into a Web search engine. Yahoo! reports 93 matches and ranks them by the number of hits each gets. Its top 27 are pro-anorexia websites.

Anorexia is a self-imposed starvation disorder that affects about 5 million people in the U.S. each year, most of them adolescent girls, according to the U.S. Surgeon General's office. Annually, about 1,000 American women die as a result of the disease.

Secrecy, denial and isolation often characterize the behavior of those with eating disorders, says Pinhaus. The Internet's anonymity offers them a perfect venue for remaining physically isolated while forming virtual friendships with people who encourage their fights against their own bodies.

And it's as easy to set up a website as it is to find online clubs and bulletin boards, says Greg Ahern, president of Denver's Ahern Interactive and partner of Vanguard Communications. Scores of virtual communities offer free home pages to anyone who sets up an e-mail account.

"The big difference, in this case, is that the kids prone to anorexia - 13 to 25 - grew up with computers, and for them to jump in and put up a website, there's nothing to it," he said.

"There's a big generational gap here between doctors and parents, and the kids and technology."

"I always felt that I was alone and that no one understood me so one day I went surfing the net looking for someone out there that was like me and thought the same way I did,"" a girl named katybelle wrote on one pro-anorexia site.

"To my surprise, there were tons of you guys!!! YEA!!!"

The people who run - and visit - the pro-anorexia sites know they have eating disorders. They know that their friends, families and physicians want them to recover, but they don't want to. They use the websites as places to rant against attempts to change them and to share tips about how to resist.

None of more than two dozen pro-anorexia webmasters contacted for this story were willing to be identified or quoted. Hiding behind wispy pseudonyms like pynk_kittie, daisy, lovelyneurotic, metalli_chick and Texas-starving_gurl, they and other visitors to their sites trade tips on how to fool parents and doctors and how to manage a diet of less than 600 calories a day.

Anguished posters fret about how to drop from the frustrating "plateau" of 115 pounds to "just under 90." They trade stats: "Usually i stay below 500 cals, but at this point i'm beyond 500 cals! i'm such an oinker," wrote a girl who posts under the name DiET PePSi UhHuH. She also posted, in another pro-ana club, a question about how much singer Christina Aguilera weighs. She added, "i know she is 5'2"...I am also 5'2" and i want her body, well maybe weigh 5 pounds lesser than her."

Sometimes their posts reflect deeper sentiments, such as this one: "To me my anorexia is EVERYTHING, it's my life and everything I want and need...yes I NEED this. It has become such a big part of my life...but certainly not something I just decided I wanted. Yes, it gives me the control I need, it gives me that sense of achievement that I can't get from anything else, it makes me feel happy when nothing else can."

Complicating things further: Few therapists are aware of the pro-anorexia clubs and sites.Members of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals "reacted with surprise and dismay" when Arizona physican and therapist Vicki Berkus alerted the group, she said, and usually "parents are not aware" that their children are visiting sites that encourage anorexia instead of fighting it rather than help them fight it.

What worries Pinhas, other eating disorder specialists and recovering anorexics like University of Colorado graduate student Shannon Hurd, is the instant network provided by the World Wide Web.

"To be able to find so many people like you, all at once, on the Internet - that's scary," Hurd says.

Now 23, she spent seven years recovering from anorexia and even endured a heart attack when her calorie-starved body began attacking its own internal organs.

"The sites make me sick. Not angry sick, but sad sick," says Hurd, who is 6 feet tall and once weighed less than 113 pounds. "Some of the same feelings of worthlessness have plagued me throughout the course of my disease, and my heart goes out to those girls."

And although the pro-anorexia websites often post warnings such as, "This is NOT a recovery site," Hurd shrugs at the warnings.

"I think anyone suffering from that disorder is so absorbed with it that saying "Don't come in here' is like saying, "Do it, do it, do it! Come in!'"

Few pro-anorexia clubs and sites existed when she was at the height of her illness, but Hurd's life with anorExia mirrors those described on the pro-anorexia sites: Isolating herself from worried friends and family members, fixating on the idea that weighing and eating "less and less was better and better." She thinks an online community may have offered her a group of instant friends to cheer each pound she lost.

That's what most worries Pinhaus. She believes those pro-anorexia sites could compromise the therapy provided by eating disorder specialists, and trigger relapses and weight-loss spirals among recovering anorexics.

"Whether we'll ever be able to prove this, I don't know, but I do think that, for girls who have the anorexic symptoms, these websites will make the recovery much more difficult," she said.

Pinhas is also worried about the sites' influence on the youngest of anorexics, she says.

"Anorexia's age of onset is starting to go down. We're seeing kids develop it earlier. And these kids - 12, 13 years old - are the most vulnerable to the information and misinformation on the Web. It's new to them. And it's everywhere online.

"Before, you might have a handful of girls at risk for eating disorders who traded information in the school bathroom or wherever. Now, they can click onto these websites and fully immerse themselves in this disease."

One patient of Donna Fallansbee, a Denver psychologist, learned about the pro-ana sites from a friend at a pro-recovery site, Follansbee's patient told her that the friend mentioned a Yahoo pro-anorexia club that she visited and found links to many others.

"Parents and therapists should ask more assertively" about the sites visited by patients being treated for anorexia, says Follansbee, who specializes in eating disorders.

"I'd encourage more active monitoring. We don't want parents to be food police or 'Net police, but we do want to give the message that anything that supports a deadly emotional state - whether starvation, or being in the wrong place on the Web - will not be allowed. And it won't be easy."

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