Pro-eating disorder online communities normalize eating disordered behavior

Pro-eating disorder online communities normalize eating disordered behavior

Stacy Cacciatore

Queens University of Charlotte

 


 

Abstract

The advent of the internet has introduced a new media environment surrounding the pro-eating disorder the community. Each year, over 13 million searches are conducted on the internet for pro-eating disorder tips, advice and information. While efforts have been made to eliminate the pro-eating disorder online communities, underground pro-eating disorder sites continue to thrive. Members of pro-eating disorder sites normalize and rationalize their eating disordered behavior, thereby encouraging the continuation of the eating disorder and reinforcing their viewpoint that anorexia is a lifestyle, not a disease. The cultivation theory supports this research because it states that when messages are repeated and pervasive, viewers are more likely to accept the messages as normative. Through a thorough literature review, this paper analyzes the research in the field of eating disorders, pro-eating disorder sites, body image and cultivation theory. Through this research, it was discovered that the members of pro-eating disorder sites normalize their behavior because of three common themes, including posting thinspiration images, sharing common experiences and reinforcing disordered eating through sharing tips. It was also discovered that the users who were the most steadfast in their participation in the eating disorder community also demonstrated more eating disordered behaviors. This is particularly significant to the study of communications because the discourse and imagery reinforced through these online communities can be detrimental to those who engage. By understanding the nature of the eating disordered communities and the motivation behind participants behavior, one can develop solutions to help those with an eating disorder join the road of recovery rather than continue along the path of destructive behavior.

Introduction

Over the past several years, there has been a rise in the quantity and availability of pro-eating disorder websites across the globe (Jefford, 2012). Each year over 13 million searches for pro-eating disorder information is sought after on the internet (Lewis & Arbuthnott, 2012). While efforts have been made the shut down the pro-eating disorder online community, underground pro-eating disorder sites continue to thrive. This issue is pervasive, global and growing. Over 24 million people suffer from an eating disorder and eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness (ANAD, n.d). Pro-eating disorder sites promote that eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia and EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) are a lifestyle choice, not a disease. Pro-eating disorder is a term that implies willingness to accept that one has an eating disorder without seeking treatment (Csipke & Horne, 2007).

These pro-eating disorder sites provide a forum for those suffering from anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders to discuss and reinforce eating disordered behavior (Peebles, Wilson, Litt, Hardy, Lock, Mann, & Borzekowski, 2012). Members of pro-eating disorder sites, including pro-Ana (pro-anorexia) and pro-Mia (pro-bulimia), normalize and rationalize their eating disordered behavior, thereby encouraging the continuation of the eating disorder as a lifestyle. Through the cultivation theory this paper will show how the messages about disordered eating on pro-eating disorder sites affect the members through three common themes. These themes include posting “thinspiration” images, sharing common experiences and reinforcing disordered eating through sharing tips for maintaining the disorder. Additionally, it was discovered that the users who displayed the most frequent usage in the eating disorder community also demonstrated more apparent eating disordered behavior.

This paper explored eating disordered sites that met at least one of the following criteria; declared the site was pro-eating disorders, provided a disclaimer that one should not visit the site if they have an eating disorder or are in recovery, displayed in the top 10 results from a Google search of “Pro-Ana”, “Pro-Mia” or “Pro-eating disorder”, used the phrase “thinspiration” and/or provided tips for eating disordered behavior. The sites I evaluated include theprostylelifestyleforever, thinintentionsforever, pro-ana posts on tumblr, myproana.com and prothinspo.com. I evaluated the pictures, content, discussion and pinned posts on each of these sites.

Literature Review

Members of pro-eating disorder sites normalize and rationalize their eating disordered behavior, thereby encouraging the continuation of the eating disorder and reinforcing their viewpoint that anorexia is a lifestyle, not a disease. The cultivation theory supports this theory because it states that when messages are repeated and pervasive, viewers are more likely to accept the messages as normative (Borzekowski, Schenk, Wilson & Peebles, 2010). This paper extends the cultivation theory to the study of pro-eating disorder sites. Through a thorough literature review, this paper analyzes the research in the field of eating disorders, pro-eating disorder sites, body image and cultivation theory. Through evaluating the cultivation theory, attributes of eating disorders as a mental disorder, the media’s influence of the community’s perception of weight, themes within the eating-disorder community sites and usage among community members, this paper will demonstrate how the advent of the pro-eating disorder community is global, pervasive, and destructive.

Theoretical Framework

George Gerbner (1976), communications scholar, developed the cultivation theory that posits, “when messages are pervasive and repeated, individuals with higher exposure levels are more likely to accept the conveyed messages as normative” (as cited in Borzekowski, Schenk, Wilson & Peebles, 2010, p. 1526). The cultivation theory explored how viewers who watch a lot of television are more susceptible to media messages (Davie, 2010). Gerber (1998) stated that the media affects individuals through repeated television viewing over time (as cited in Van Vonderen & Kinnally, 2012). This research demonstrated that television can influence our perception of the world and can perpetuate stereotypes.

Van Vonderen and Kinnally (2012) examined the correlation between media usage and body dissatisfaction through the lens of the cultivation theory. The researchers demonstrated that the mediated norm for body image is the thin-ideal. Shrum (2009) states that while the cultivation theory doesn’t cause one to have certain mindset, it does reinforce their attitudes (as cited in Van Vonderen & Kinnally, 2012). Morgan and Shanahan (2010) note that individuals often seek out media that affirms their existing attitudes (as cited in Van Vonderen & Kinnally, 2012). Therefore, if one is already inclined to seek out images, content and information that reinforces their disordered body image, they will continue to be drawn to that content, which in turn strengthens their attitudes (Van Vonderen & Kinnally, 2012).

Another element of cultivation theory is resonance. Schwartz (1973) developed the resonance theory of media, which identified that decoding non-verbal stimulus is no longer our biggest problem in the age of digital communications. Communications through digital media requires resonance, which takes place when the recipients evoke meaning from the communication (Schwartz, 1973). Without meaning, the communication is stagnant. Using this theory of resonance and the cultivation theory, Shrum and Bischak (2001) theorized that the more the life experiences of a viewer is reflected in the media content they consumer, the more likely they are to allow it to affect them.

Eating disorder as a mental illness

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports, “eating disorders are some of the most challenging mental illnesses” (Duckworth & Freedman, 2013). One in twenty people will experience symptoms of an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) all of these eating disorders “include extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues” (NEDA, 2014). Almost 50 percent of those suffering from an eating disorder also suffer from depression (ANAD, n.d.). Jurascio, Shoaib and Timko (2010) found that social networking sites appeal to those with eating disorders because they are prone to depression and have deficient social support. They also found that those who use pro-ana sites use a style of communication that enables them to connect as a coping strategy for battling their illness. They can share experiences and gain support from one another.

Along the lines of gaining support from one another, those who visit the pro-eating disorder sites seek connection and tips to hone their perfectionism at maintaining the disease. Kuntsman, Smith and Maner (2014) conducted research that found that self-oriented perfectionism is a risk-factor for disordered eating. Failure to achieve extreme standards leads perfectionists to feel a lack of self-control. They will then turn to dietary restriction to obtain control.

It’s also important to note that even though the pro-eating disorder sites claim that they embrace anorexia as a lifestyle, not a disease, anorexia is in fact a disease. Benninghoven, Jürgens, Mohr, Heberlein, Kunzendorf and Jantschek (2006) studied the differences in the changes of one’s body image in patients with anorexia and bulimia during psychosomatic treatment. The researchers found that while patients with bulimia were able to successfully improve their body image during treatment, patients with anorexia continued to maintain a distorted body image, despite their weight increasing to a healthy level. Those with eating disorders are preoccupied with their weight and have body size distortion and body dissatisfaction. This study found that those with anorexia not only had an extremely distorted body image, but even after treatment they continued to desire a lower percentage of body fat. Benninghoven et al. concluded that this is due to the fact that anorexics have a pride in their extremely underweight bodies and they view the manipulation of their bodies as a positive result of their strength of control.

Media

McClure, Puhl, and Heuer (2011) conducted research on the news coverage of obesity and how the media contributes to the negative attitudes towards those who are overweight and/or obese. When mass media displays images of obese people in unflattering or stereotypical ways, they are reinforcing the negative trope of overweight people. Those who are overweight are subject to discrimination, bias and prejudice, which are reinforced through the media. Andreyeva, Puhl and Brownell (2008) conduced research that found that weight discrimination has decreased by 66 percent over the past decade (as cited in McClure, Puhl & Heuer, 2011). However, there is still an overwhelming amount of negative portrayals of overweight and obese persons on television. The repeated imagery of negative portrayals of overweight people in the media reinforces the negative attitudes and prejudice to these individuals.

Anuradha, M. (2012) conducted research on the gender stereotypes in television commercials aimed at children in India. While this study didn’t look at eating disorders, it did explore the cultivation theory and affects of media exposure on children. Television programming and commercials still represented gender stereotypes. Anuradha (2012) says that studies have shown that women are still portrayed in the stereotypical role of dependent, domestic caregiver while men are represented as the dominating voice and as the bread-winner. This study found that gender behaviors are influenced by television.

Proulx (2008) states that many women with bulimia are disconnected from their bodies and feelings, which leaves them more susceptible to cultural influences. Proulx also found through her research that woman who suffered from bulimia experienced extreme thoughts of worthlessness, victimized, powerless and numbness. Because they felt disconnected to their true selves, they couldn’t regulate their feelings and their behaviors became out of control.

 

We see this clearly in the documentary, Dying to be Anorexic (2012). The two anorexics featured, Lavinia and Katie turned to pro-anorexia sites for support in maintaining, not overcoming their disease (2012). Both Lavinia and Katie viewed being anorexic as a strength, not a weakness. Lavinia used the pro-eating disorder site to get tips about being an anorexic safely. Lavinia says she learned about the dangers of eating cotton balls, a common practice among anorexics to lose weight, and taking laxatives on the pro-eating disorder sites. Lavinia also turned to the site for support when she because distraught when she couldn’t maintain her strict diet of 200 calories.

Global

Arroyo and Harwood’s (2012) research found that 66 percent of adolescent girls are trying to lose weight (Neumark-Sztainer et al., 2002 as cited in Arroyo & Harwood, 2012). They also found that 50 percent of adult women have negative perceptions of how they look (Cash & Henry, 1995 as cited in Arroyo & Harwood, 2012). This isn’t just an issue in the United States. Even though over 24 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the United States this is a global issue (ANAD, n.d.). The UK has the highest rate of eating disorders in Europe (Anorexia & Bulimia Care, n.d.). Studies show the number of people diagnosed with an eating disorder in the UK increased by 15 percent since 2000 (Micali, Hagberg, Peterson & Treasure, 2013). Jefford (2012) states that not only are pro-eating disorder sites on the rise, but the majority of the new sites are originated from the UK. This is demonstrated clearly in the documentary, Dying to be Anorexic (2012). As we follow the stories of Lavinia and Katie, two anorexics from the UK (2012), we clearly see Lavinia and Katie participate in the online eating disorder community to maintain their eating disorder.

Lester, R. (2004) conducted research on eating disorders to understand the correlation between eating disorders and culture. Lester found that while eating disorders are typically thought of as a Western disease as a result of post-industrial materialism, eating disorders are on the rise in non-Western and non-modern cultures around the globe. Lester says that while most scholarly literature provides data that points towards eating disorders being the result of a society that “supersizes” everything, viewing this as a cultural issue is flawed (p. 607). Lester states that the reason this is flawed is because culture has become more complex in the age of globalization and mass media saturation. American culture can be exported and the Westernization of other cultures is prevalent.

Thinspiration

Jurarascio et al. (2006) defines “thinspiration” as “images of thin women designed to encourage viewers to lose weight” (p. 394). Lewis and Arbuthnott (2012) conducted research on how individuals search for pro-eating disorder information through Google search. They discovered that “pro-ED search terms are sought out more than 13 million times annually, with pro ana receiving the most searchers monthly” (p. 200). Lewis and Arbuthnott also found that search results associated with the terms thinspiration and thinspo contained the most damaging content.

Connection

In evaluating the pro-eating disorder sites, another common theme was discovered, which was how the eating-disorder community shares common with another, which reinforces and normalizes disordered eating. Jurascio, Shoaib and Timko (2010) found that individuals who participate in pro-eating sites encourage each other to restrict their eating, resist recovery and have an increased likelihood of body dissatisfaction than those who do not use these sites.

As a part of this connection, participants engage in “fat talk”. “Fat talk” is defined as the words we express about both our own and other’s bodies (Arroyo & Harwood, 2012, p. 167). Arroyo and Harwood (2012) conducted two studies to evaluate how “fat talk” influences body satisfaction, depression, pressure to be thin and self-esteem. Study one found that “fat talk” contributed to body weight concerns and mental health problems. Study two found that fat talk correlated with a higher perceived pressure to be thin and a higher rate of depression. The other correlation that both studies found was that the lower the participant’s body satisfaction, the higher the fat talk.

We also see the correlation of connections in Eichhorn’s (2008) research. Eichhorn evaluated 490 postings on pro-eating disorder sites to analyze the social support on discussion forums, including the type of social support provided, strategies used to solicit support, and the top five Yahoo! eating disorder discussion boards. Eichhorn categorized the messages from the eating disorder groups into the following categories: informational, emotional, network, instrumental and esteem. The results find that information support is the most frequent, with 29.7 percent of the responses. Out of the informational responses, Eichkorn uses research by North (1997) as the basis for her categorization, which identifies the five strategies that individual’s most typically use to try to obtain support in social circles online. These include: self-deprecation, shared experiences, information, personal success and extreme behavior (as cited in Eichkorn, 2008). Eichkorn found that 51.9 percent of the responses were shared experiences whil only 1.1 percent of participant responses on pro-eating disorder sites were statements of extreme behavior. There was also a positive effect of the participation on the pro-eating disorder sites because “computer-mediated communication allows individuals with eating disorders to solicit feedback and provide comments with anonymity,” (p.68).

Tips

            Csipke and Horne (2007) conducted a study of those who frequented pro-eating disorder sites and found that participants reported visiting this site to obtain food and exercise information, tips on hiding their disorder, and inspiration for maintaining their disorder. Many participants reported visiting the site when they were already in a negative mood and after visiting the site their body image worsened. Csipke and Horne‘s research also found that active participants, those who visited and posted frequently, found the pro-eating disorder sites helpful. Contrast this discovery to those who used the site for emotional support through “silent browsing”, meaning that they did not post or respond to comments, as they were more prone to sustain disordered eating (p. 203).

Csipke and Horne (2007) identified two concerns with the pro-eating disordered sites. The first concern they identified was that individuals visit the site to obtain tips on how to become anorexic. The second concern they identify is that individuals who participate in the eating-disorder forum begin to normalize their eating-disordered behavior.

Frequent usage

Peebles et al. (2012) found that heavy users of eating disordered sites have a significant inclination towards eating disordered behavior. One reason for this correlation may be due to the cultivation theory. The cultivation theory states that when messages are repeated, individuals with higher exposure levels are more likely to accept the messages as normative. Applying this theory to eating disordered sites, one can see how those who have more exposure to eating disordered sites may reflect this behavior as they begin to deem it as normal.

Analysis: Applying Method to Data

Through the cultivation theory this paper will show how the messages about disordered eating behaviors on pro-eating disorder sites affect the members through three common themes shared across all pro-eating disorder sites. I conducted research on four pro-eating disorder community forums, My Pro Ana, Pro Ana Lifestyle Forever, Thin Intentions Forever and Tumblr. Through this research, three commonalities were found, including posting thinspiration images and text, sharing common experiences encountered by those with an eating disorder with other community members, and reinforcing disordered eating through sharing tips for maintaining the disorder. Additionally, it was discovered that the more steadfast the participation of the pro-eating disorder community member, the more disordered their behavior.

Thinspiration

The first theme to explore is how members of the pro-eating disorder sites share “thinspiration” images, which reinforces and normalizes eating disordered behavior. Jurarascio et al. (2006) defines “thinspiration” as “images of thin women designed to encourage viewers to lose weight” (p. 394). Thinspiration includes both images and text to provide inspiration for others who desire to be thin. The majority of information shared on pro-Ana tumblr included images of anorexic or thin individuals and pictures of viewers claiming to be “fat”. The pro-eating disorder community also includes thinspiration images in their signature, including movie clips, thin celebrities, pictures of emancipated women. The users in the community also post thinspiration as their profile picture. It isn’t clear if the pictures are of their own emancipated bodies or those of one they find inspirational.

Pro-ana Tumblr communities frequently post images and phrases that are meant to be inspirational to the pro-ana community. Examples include, “Don’t eat anything today that you’ll regret tomorrow,” (thin-iwill-be, 2014), “collar bones, hip bones, thigh gap” (ana-forever-owns-my-soul, 2014), and “Skip Dinner Wake Up Thinner” (dandelion—wishes, 2014). The pro-ana Tumblr community also uses hashtags, such as #proana, #promia, #skinny, #thighgap, #thinspo, #ednos, #thinspiration and #anatip to categorize their posts. The use of these hashtags allows others who were seeking pro-anorexia tips or thinspiration images to easily find the information.

Van Vonderen and Kinnally (2012) examined the correlation between media usage and body dissatisfaction through the lens of the cultivation theory. While Van Vonderen and Kinnally’s research focused primarily on television, this theory can be extended to support the theory that viewing “thinspiration” images on the pro-eating disorder sites reinforces a negative body image. The more “thinspiration” images that women view, the more normalized they become. On the flip side, the more negative associations with overweight images, the more it reinforces that being thin is a positive attribution and being overweight is negative (as cited in Van Vonderen & Kinnally, 2012).

Connection

In evaluating the pro-eating disorder sites, another common theme was discovered, which was the community interacts with each other through sharing common experiences, which reinforces and normalizes disordered eating. Jurascio, Shoaib and Timko (2010) found that social networking sites appeal to those with eating disorders because they are prone to depression and have deficient social support. They also found that those who use pro-ana sites use a style of communication that enables them to connect as a coping strategy for battling their illness. They can share experiences and gain support from one another.

One example of this is within the Myproana also has a discussion board dedicated to those with EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), which is an eating disorder that does not meet the criteria for anorexia or bulimia (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder, n.d.). One of the hot topics was “Today I feel proud of myself because I avoided eating_____” (Gravity_Grave, 2014). This topic trended as a hot topic, as it had 2,923 views and 274 replies. The community shared experiences about foods that they have avoided or foods in which they’ve binged. The community bonds over these shared experiences. The topic, “How do you have self control around food?” (Kittycat123, 2014) also experienced the same trend. The post had 224 views and 15 replies to this topic.

This discovery supports Eichhorn’s (2008) research, which found that only 1.1 percent of participant responses on pro-eating disorder sites were statements of extreme behavior, while 51.9 percent were shared experiences. Eichhorn found a positive attribution of the participation on the pro-eating disorder sites because “computer-mediated communication allows individuals with eating disorders to solicit feedback and provide comments with anonymity,” (p.68). This can be seen on the pro-eating disorder sites, as the user community can post their shared experiences in a safe environment.

Through evaluating the categories of comments Eichhorn (2008) defined in her study, which included informational, emotional, network, instrumental and esteem, along with along with the cultivation theory, I believe that those with eating disorders use computer-mediated communication to connect with others, but also to normalize their behavior. I don’t think that the users set out to obtain tips on maintaining an eating disorder, however through their participation, they begin to believe that their eating disordered behavior is acceptable. Those suffering from an eating disorder are able to make connections with others experiencing a similar struggle and not only connect emotionally, but through information as well. However, on the same token, they can share information, tips and pictures that encourage this eating disordered behavior. Since the majority (51.9 percent) of the comments were shared experiences, this confirms that individuals are seeking others with related experiences on these anorexia discussion boards.

As we’ve seen through Eichorn’s (2008) research, participants on eating disordered sites connected with each other by contributing shared experiences. Part of the shared experiences community members contribute is “fat talk”. As I stated earlier, “fat talk” is defined as the words we express about both our own and other’s bodies (Arroyo & Harwood, 2012, p. 167). This “fat talk” is self-degrading commentary, which normalizes eating disordered behavior.

We see this “fat talk” when evaluating the content on the pro-eating disorder sites. The members of the community post their HW (highest weight), LW (lowest weight) and CW (current weight). On the My Pro Ana site the member L-and-A-Inside (2014) has an extensive signature with her height, weight and days that she ate under 500 calories. She also has commentary next to her weight, including “disgusting” next to her HW, and “disgusting, I’ll post when it’s lower” next to her current weight. On another post, mylifedependsonanumber (2014) asked the community to post the size of their thighs. “Advanced Guru” member, wannabebetter (2014) stated “19 inches smfh. BMI 17.4. I’ve always had fat thighs,” (MyProAna). Advanced Sage member, Merkid’s Starving posted, “AYOOO fat lard here beating all of you at 21 inches!!!” (MyProAna). These posts both demonstrate the advanced level of membership as demonstrating a tendency towards eating disordered behaviors and increased level of fat talk among the members of pro-eating disorder sites. All of the eating disordered sites explored in this study represent a significant amount of fat-talk.

Using the cultivation theory, we can see that the more individuals participate in fat-talk, the more likely they are to believe that it’s true. The more they believe they are fat, the more they are inclined to have eating disordered behaviors. Arroyo and Harwood (2012) found that saying “fat talk” contributes to depression and perceived pressure to be thin, but hearing the comments has no correlation. The research on “fat talk” is important as it relates to communications research with the pro-eating disorder websites, as it helps us understand that what we say has more of an impact than what we hear.

Another example of the impact of sharing experiences in the eating-disordered community is within the Myproana site. Myproana has a discussion board dedicated to those with EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified), which is an eating disorder that does not meet the criteria for anorexia or bulimia (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder, n.d.). One of the hot topics was “Today I feel proud of myself because I avoided eating_____” (Gravity_Grave, 2014). The community members discuss what they avoided eating or what they ate and felt guilty about. This topic trended as a hot topic, as it had 2,923 views and 274 replies. The community shared experiences about foods that they have avoided or foods in which they’ve binged. The community bonds over these shared experiences. The topic, “How do you have self control around food?” (Kittycat123, 2014) also experienced the same trend. The post had 224 views and 15 replies to this topic thread. The users shared both success and failures, which were shared experiences.

MyProAna was more focused on community than the other pro-ana sites. They posted content that related to support, connecting with others and creating a sense of community. While there are many posts about finding buddies and connecting with others who can help in the road to recovery, there are also many posts that encourage eating disordered behavior. One post by DI(ANA) (2014) titled “Emily & Diana’s Forbidden Food List” focused on all of the foods that the community strictly prohibits. It was considered a “hot” topic, meaning that it’s trending with a lot of posts. The post was started on November 20, 2014 and it had 1,093 views and 56 replies by December 9, 2014.

Tips

The third theme I discovered was that the community contributed tips to maintaining an eating disorder. The ProThinSpo (n.d.) community provided tips that ranged from tactical to psychological. Some of the tactical tips included wearing a rubber band on your wrist and snap it when you want to eat, eat with your opposite hand and pour something gross on your food .The strategic tips included keeping a thinspiration book, eating in front of a mirror and thinking of those who are overweight when eating. These same tips can be seen on The Pro Ana Lifestyle Forever (2014) blog, demonstrating a commonality among the pro-ED sites. The Pro Ana Lifestyle Forever (2014) blog encourages readers to talk a lot during meals so you spend more time talking than eating, not to be first to finish or start eating and take a sip of water between each bite. Both sites tell readers to sabotage their food with salt, eat with the opposite hand and to brush their teeth to avoid eating.

The research of Csipke and Horne (2007) supports this finding. They conducted a study of those who frequented pro-eating disorder sites and found that participants visited the site to obtain tips and inspiration for maintaining and hiding their disorder. After visiting the site, their body image perception actually worsened.

This is demonstrated in the documentary, Dying to be Anorexic (2012). The two anorexics featured, Lavinia and Katie, turned to pro-anorexia sites to receive tips for continuing their eating disorder (2012). Lavinia used the pro-eating disorder site to get tips about being an anorexic safely. Lavinia says she learned about the dangers of eating cotton balls, a common practice among anorexics to lose weight, and taking laxatives on the pro-eating disorder sites. Lavinia also turned to the site for support when she because distraught when she couldn’t maintain her strict diet of 200 calories. This is a common practice on the pro-eating disorder sites. While the members state that they aren’t sharing tips to develop an eating disorder, they share tips about how to lose weight safety.

Another common theme seen on the pro-eating disorder sites is that they view anorexia as strength, not a weakness. Both Lavinia and Katie stated their viewpoint on being anorexic as a strength, not a weakness in the documentary, Dying to be Anorexic. Lavinia expressed jealously when she walked past the anorexics in the eating disorder clinic on her way to work. She felt like she wasn’t good enough if she wasn’t “anorexic enough” to be in the mental health facility (2012). This can be seen on the pro-eating disorder sites as well, as members of the pro-eating disorder sites get upset when they have a day in which they feel they weren’t in control of their eating. In my research on the pro-eating disorder sites, I saw that the members spoke of “Ana”, which is anorexia, as a person and superior being. Being “Ana” is highly desired among the community and holds a higher status than “Mia”, bulimia, which is seen as a weakness. The combination of viewing anorexia as a lifestyle, envying others with anorexia and normalizing the eating disordered behavior contributes to the continuation of the eating disorder.

Frequent Usage

While Eichhorn (2008) explored the qualitative data on the pro-eating disorder communities, Peebles et. al (2012) explored the quantitative data. Peebles et. al conducted a study of 1,291 participants who visited pro-eating disorder website communities. Researchers found that over 70 percent of participants had used a disordered behavior to control their weight, including binging, purging or using laxatives. However, only 12.9 percent were in treatment. Peebles et al. (2012) also found that participants who were exposed to the eating disorder sites for more than 25 minutes were more likely to experience a negative affect, perceiving themselves as heavier than they actually were.

The other correlation that both studies found was that the lower the participant’s body satisfaction, the higher the fat talk (Arroyo and Harwood (2012). Through my research I discovered that the individuals who displayed the most frequent usage in the eating disorder community also demonstrated the most apparent eating disordered behavior. The majority of pro-eating disorder sites categorize their members by usage. On Myproana (n.d.) the categories include “Advanced Sage”, “Advanced Warrior”, “Advanced Guru”, “Advanced Member”, “Warrior” “Member” and “Newbie”. These classifications are determined by the quantity of posts the user makes. All users start out as a “Newbie” and then they can obtain increasing levels of status the more they post.    This is supported by the research of Csipke and Horne (2007), as they also found that individuals who visit the pro-eating disorder sites begin to normalize their eating-disordered behavior.

To support this theory, evaluate the example of an “Advanced Sage” (highest level) member on the MyProAna site. Megurine Luka (2014) stated that she ate below 500 calories for one-two months. She also only weighs 98 lbs. at 5’2. The next level of membership is “Advanced Guru”. An “Advanced Guru” member modoki (2014) says that she has a BMI if 12.5 and has had years of amenorrhea. This is consistent with what Peebles, et al. found in their research on eating disordered sites. Peebles, et al. (2012) found that heavy users of eating disordered sites have a significant inclination towards eating disordered behavior (Peebles et al., 2012). One reason for this correlation may be due to the cultivation theory. The cultivation theory states that when messages are repeated, individuals with higher exposure levels are more likely to accept the messages as normative. Applying this theory to eating disordered sites, one can see how those who have more exposure to eating disordered sites may reflect this behavior as they begin to deem it as normal.

Gap Analysis

There is significant more research that needs to be done on pro-eating disorder websites. While research that identifies the negative effects of pro-eating disorder sites exists, not much research has been conducted on the possible benefits. While this paper explored the detriments of using the pro-eating disorder forums, not all of the effects are negative. Jurascio, Shoaib, and Timko (2010) found that those who use pro-ana sites use a style of communication that enables them to connect as a coping strategy for battling their illness. They can share experiences and gain support from one another. Current research analyzes the content posted on pro-eating disorder websites, but there is not much quantitative data on pro-eating disorder community. Since pro-eating disorder websites are underground and private, it can be difficult to find and analyze the sites. The pro-eating disorder website must be open and allow permission for successful analysis. Finally, since the advent of pro-eating disorder websites are fairly new, the research is young. It would be beneficial to see the research on the long-term effects of participation in a pro-eating disorder community.

Conclusion

The exploration of pro-eating disorder sites is a particular relevant topic to the field of communications because the internet enables online communities and opportunities for those with similar interests to connect. This is particularly dangerous because through the participation in a community with others with eating disordered behavior, those with eating disorders begin to normalize their behavior. Research shows that those participating in eating disordered communities are more prone to suffering from eating disordered behavior. Through applying the cultivation theory, one can see how the community normalizes this behavior, which in turn perpetuates eating disorders and the participation in the community. This is particularly significant to the study of communications because the discourse and imagery reinforced through these online communities can be detrimental to those who engage. By understanding the nature of the eating disordered communities and the motivation behind participants behavior, one can develop solutions to help those with an eating disorder join the road of recovery rather than continue along the path of destructive behavior.

 

 

References

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