Stories of ‘thinspiration’
One blog says to curl into a ball and clutch your waist, as you wait for pangs of hunger to subside. Another says to continuously hit your stomach to silence its grumblings, and when you eat, only swallow on the fourth bite. Spit out the rest.
Such tips to methodically starve yourself are posted on pro-anorexia nervosa “pro-ana” websites, creating an online community that approaches eating disorders not as an issue of mental health, but rather a stringent lifestyle, one that revolves around a singular goal: staying thin.
Participants in pro-ana will share tips to keep hunger at bay, instruct one another on avoiding questions from family members and friends, and will post photos tagged as “thinspiration,“ or “ideal body,” which are typically skeletal depictions of models.
Towson’s Counseling Center Director of Clinical Services Jaime Fenton said that individuals suffering from anorexia gravitate toward these groups because they feel a strong sense of community among individuals who will often validate their behaviors.
“It’s human nature to want to find someone who shares your beliefs and values,” Fenton said. “Unless you’re actually in treatment, you’re not very likely to be meet other people with the disorder.”
Senior Dominique Beverly said she suffered from an eating disorder from eighth grade until her first year of college at Harford Community. It was her friends who encouraged her to discontinue negative behavior.
From an early age, Beverly said her mother and stepfather would slip insinuations into conversations: “You must have made 50 trips to the refrigerator by now,” and, “just watch your weight.”
Beverly avoided eating, to the point where she would actively starve herself senior year of high school and go a maximum of a week without food. When she did eat, she said she wouldn’t prepare full meals but rather a bowl of plain noodles, or she would eat an orange once a day.
“All I could think about was I would want this food, but I couldn’t have it,” she said. “But I felt like I had perfected starvation because I had the willpower not to eat. I was in control.”
Her friends noticed.
“They started feeding me,” she said. “We would come to school together and [they would] feed me chicken strips or something. I just thought I didn’t really need food. I accepted the food to be nice, but they had to help me eat because I couldn’t finish a basket of chicken and fries.”
Beverly said she is healthy now, and grateful for the support her friends provided her.
“It’s about building up a sense of confidence and saying, ‘You know, I really do like food, I don’t care what people think,” she said. “I can get a piece of cake from the fridge now and not feel bad.”
Communicating with a friend, family member or a significant other is one of the best ways to begin treatment for an eating disorder, Fenton said.
Sometimes when Fenton discovers a student suffering from anorexia or bulimia, a roommate has made her aware of the situation and sought advice from the Counseling Center.
“We want to empower students to feel like they can help their friends by helping them seek help with a professional,” she said.
Often those who visit pro-ana sites are resistant to treatment, Fenton said, because they are not only unwilling to consider changing their behaviors, but they are fixed on maintaining a weight through sometimes extreme means.
Beverly said she has largely avoided pro-ana websites, only visiting to send emails to these individuals, whom she does not know but wants to dissuade from participating in this digital society.
“I’m glad I’m really not like that anymore,” she said. “I’ll message these girls and say ‘hey, you know you’re beautiful, you have one body and you have to love it.”
Pro-ana is present on common social media platforms, including tumblr, Facebook, LiveJournal and Pinterest.
Internet providers and social media giants have taken measures to weed out pro-ana pages. Tumblr adopted a no self-harm policy February 2012, which included blogs promoting eating disorder behaviors. In March, Pinterest updated its terms of service to bar any material that “creates a risk of harm, emotional distress, death disability, disfigurement or physical or mental illness to any person.”
But these bloggers and the Internet service providers are simply engaging in digital cat and mouse, Fenton said. When one page is taken down, another crops up under a different name and viewers quickly regroup.
Although the Internet can be a hub for such negative practices, other resources have emerged to combat pro-ana, Fenton said.
We Bite Back is touted by its founders as the first post-pro-ana website.
The website targets followers of pro-ana websites and encourages them to put energies toward recovery, not starvation.
“We represent a worldwide virtual network of people proactively seeking recovery and happiness with the same dedication that pro-anas apply to seeking lower goal weights,” the website reads.
Up to 24 million men and women suffer from some form of eating disorder, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Inc.
Individuals can suffer from numerous physical complications related to eating disorders. One of the most common, and dangerous, is heart related. The body, seeking nutrition, will borrow fat from the heart, causing it to shrink in size and not be able to function properly.
Those who suffer from eating disorders often suffer from heart attacks. Other conditions include early onset osteoporosis, stress fractures and reproductive failure in women.