“Feet together, thighs apart. The collar-bone is where we start. Count the ribs and feel the hips. That’s what makes us skinny, bitch.”
“Rules, rules, rules. This is important. You need to set rules for yourself, and if you are truly ana, you will have no problem sticking to them because you are STRONG!”
These are just a few of the comments on pro-Ana discussion forums.
Gabby Weber, a teenager who was addicted to pro-anorexia sites called this growing trend, “Internet-assisted suicide.”
Given that 41 percent of those with an eating disorder have visited a pro-Ana site, you may have heard these same comments before, (McCabe, 2009).
For those of you who haven’t heard the term before, pro-Ana refers to the promotion of the anorexia. There are many online groups that claim to support those with eating disorders, which are labeled as Pro-Ana, Pro-Mia and Pro-ED, representing pro-anorexia, pro-bulimia and pro-eating disorder respectively.
Research finds that 96 percent of individuals initially visit a pro-Ana site to get tips about maintaining their eating disorder.
Pro-Ana websites provide a computer mediated communication vehicle for those with an eating disorder.
The interactivity among the members provides support, reinforcement, tips and tricks, thereby encouraging the continuation of the eating disordered behaviors.
While there are troves of information on the detriments of pro-Ana websites, not much research has been done of the benefits of how one suffering from an eating disorder can use this channel.
But, how do we decide if there is more benefit or detriment to using this online social support system?
Let’s look at the media richness theory to answer this question.
Walther says that the media richness theory looks at how various communication channels, including phone, letters and memos have declining levels of richness (2011). Rich media, including face-to-face, is best for more intense interaction that is emotional or complex. Lean media, such as blogs and discussion forums, are better suited for simple, straightforward communication because of the lack of nonverbal cues, (as cited in Wright, K.B. & Webb, L.M., 2010).
Since low-self esteem, feelings of inadequacy, difficulty expressing emotions and anxiety are contributing factors to eating disorders, it makes sense that those suffering from an eating disorder would use lean media that enables them to be anonymous (NEDA, n.d.).
Pro-Ana websites enable a social support system for those with an eating disorder.
Participants can be anonymous and engage in “weak tie” relationships, which are relationships are between individuals who communicate frequently, but who are not close friends or family (Wright and Muhtaseb, 2011, p. 145). Wright and Muhtaseb (2011) say that sharing information anonymously is particularly helpful for those “who have been traumatized by some type of an illness or disorder”, (p. 14).
Balter-Reitz and Keller provide compelling research that demonstrates that the pro-Ana websites can actually be helpful to those suffering from an eating disorder as they provide social support during a time of loneliness and a more personal voice than treatment sites.
Sanford, who conducted researcher on obese bloggers who lost weight, found one blogger who said that blogging allowed her to air her feelings instead of ‘eating them’, (as cited in Sanford, 576).
However, these sites can also pose a serious threat to those suffering from an eating disorder as they build a sense of community that is unhealthy.
McCabe’s research demonstrates that pro-Ana sites create an environment that enable acceptance and a social reality for a group of individuals with an eating disorder. By using computer-mediated communication to normalize the disease the members reinforce their eating disordered behaviors.
Additionally, not all the connections that the members of these sites make are positive. Members often will put each other down as not being a true anorexic because they are not “skinny enough”. They also post pictures, often called “thinspiration” to further encourage anorexic behavior. Harrison, found a positive correlation between an attraction to thin media personalities and the tendency to have an eating disorder. There have been several accounts of girls literally “dying” to be thin as they have starved themselves to death to achieve a body that is not attainable.
Today we talked about both the dangers and benefits to pro-Ana sites. Now you are equipped with the knowledge…but how you can action this information?
First, I encourage each of you to use caution when visiting a pro-Ana site.
- If you visit a pro-Ana site, use it to connect with others and encourage recovery.
- Balter-Reitz and Keller discovered that several eating disorder treatment sites have been advised to model their sites after pro-Ana sites to improve communication, (as cited in Balter-Reitz, S., & Keller, S., 2005). This shows that the interactivity of the pro-Ana sites can aid in recovery if used correctly.
- Use posting on a pro-Ana site as a way to release your feelings.
- But avoid looking for “thinspiration” images
- Or comparing your weight to other’s
The consequences of engaging in dangerous behavior on a pro-Ana site are detrimental.
And given the rise of this growing trend – With over 2,000,000 hits if you google “Pro-Ana”, it’s more important now, than ever to know how to use the channel responsibly.
Knowing the how to use this powerful Computer Mediated Communication tool correctly can mean the difference between life and death.
 McCabe, J. (2009). Resisting alienation: The social construction of Internet communities supporting eating disorders. Communication Studies, 60(1), 1-16.
 Walther, J.B. (2011). Theories of computer-mediated communication and interpersonal relations. In M.L. Knapp & J.A. Daly (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Interpersonal Communication, (4th ed.). (443-479). SAGE Publications, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/42241_14.pdf.
 Wright, K.B., & Webb, L.M. (Eds.). (2010). Computer-mediated communication in personal relationships. Peter Lang: New York, NY.
 Factors that may contribute to eating disorders. (n.d.). NEDA. Retrieved from http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/factors-may-contribute-eating-disorders.