The Truth About Anna’s Web

March 23, 2010


She doesn’t eat. She rounds up numbers. Sixty calories in a bowl of cereal. Forty in a glass of milk. One hundred in the bar she has for lunch. By the time we get to dinner (400) and supper (100) the actual food has been cast aside and she just crunches numbers. Seven hundred calories in total per day.

Meet Tori, a 22-year-old military reservist who also suffers from Anorexia Nervosa. At 5ft6, she weighs just 111 pounds, three pounds away from what she considers her ideal weight of 108. For the past eight years she has suffered with Anorexia, hiding it from her superior officers, hiding it from her friends and hiding it from her family.

Life is lonely when you’re always hiding. And, up until three years ago, that is exactly how Tori felt. Alone. Then she discovered pro-Anorexia(pro-Ana) websites.

“I didn’t know about the whole movement on-line. I suffered on my own for a long time and I heard about this movement on the news and I was like ‘places like this actually exist’?”

Exist they do, and they provide questionable support for millions of men, women and teens just like Tori who don’t yet feel like they are ready for recovery.

Contrary to the popular myth that these sites were “recruiting” people to the disease, pro-Ana sites were initially set up as a means for Anorexics to connect with one another and realise that they were not alone. The media furor, which insured led to the closure of several sites, who returned in harder core forms and attracted people for whom the sites were never intended.

Five years on from what some sites term “first wave Ana”, many of the Pro-Ana sites operate as group therapy for those who admit that they are suffering from a disease and accept what they are doing is not healthy, but may not be ready to seek help.

Suzanne Phillips, Program Co-Coordinator of the National Eating Disorder Information Centre would prefer to see them calling places like B-Eat where they can speak to someone who is trained and can actually provide them with information, referrals, resources etc

“We have a site on our website called We Bite Back-for us, that’s more of a support group. The people who run it have survived Eating Disorders and they are there in a support capacity.”

But, crucially, those who run We Bite Back have recovered.

Pro-Ana websites remain popular among the eating disordered as many of them have a fear of being judged, and on these pro-Ana websites, where no one is going to be forcing their hand; they feel like they can be more open and not be judged for their behavior.

Tori believes that when discussing pro-Ana websites, we need to distinguish between sites that are pro-Ana and those that are pro-Eating Disorder.

“If a site is promoting anorexia as a life style choice, not as a disease, then it is pro-Eating Disorder. If you see Anorexia as a disease and you are offering support to those with it, and then you are pro-Ana. ”

“It’s more about support and understanding than trading tips. There’s a story on one UK site about a girl whose chat room name is Ballerina. She talks about her serious battle with the disease, about how she was hospitalized and everything she has been through. People find it a real humbling story. It shows how serious the disease is…and that IT IS a disease…not a frivolous diet.”

So why are people turning to pro-Ana websites rather than conventional outlets for support? A recent survey by B-Eat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, found that from a group of 600 polled teenagers only one per cent believed they could speak to their parents. Nine per cent felt they could talk to someone at school, while an overwhelming 92% said they couldn’t talk to anyone.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” says Ruth Ni Eidhin. “They tend to be set up by people suffering from an eating disorder as a kind of support community for others in the same situation as them. So there is that sense that it is a facility for people to talk to others experiencing what they are going through, where some of their friends may not have the ability to empathise.

“But at the same time they ultimately tend to be very negative in the way they provide that support. They tend to be quite competitive and in ways that can be very negative.”

At some point someone suffering from an Eating Disorder is going to need professional help and the sooner somebody gets into recovery and starts treatment the better. According to Stephen Bloomfield (speaking on BBC Radio), the Eating Disorders Association’s head of communications, one in five people who do not get appropriate treatment die prematurely.

A study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ journal Pediatrics in December 2006 found that- of eating disorder patients aged between 10 and 22 in the United States, a third learnt new weight loss or purging methods from web sites that promote eating disorders. And although such tips may not be found on the House of Thin or “new-wave” pro-Ana websites, it doesn’t take long to find the information one needs by clicking on the links provided.

Surely then, the best thing would be to shut them all down and sue the pants of the webmasters, as suggested by Deanne Jade, principle of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, back in 2004?

“If that was your only form of support it would be potentially devastating to not have it there anymore” says Suzanne Phillips. “Besides they do get shut down, all the time…and they just open up again…that’s exactly what would happen if they were made illegal.”

Ruth, from Bodywhys, agrees. “There does seem to be an attitude that they are isolated together and there would be that danger of increasing that feeling, that they are being pushed together because they are being pushed away from everybody else, if we completely shut off that sense of community.

The last word, as with the first, goes to Tori who lived with an Eating Disorder all by herself until discovering there was a community of people like her out there. Would she recommend pro-Ana websites?

“If you don’t have a pre-existing disorder I wouldn’t advise them as some people might find them triggering or they might get ideas… .

“But if its something you have been suffering with and you do feel like you’re alone and you need somebody to talk to…then yeah I would recommend them. You can’t recover unless you consciously want to…and right now I just can’t see myself doing that…that’s why I need the support of the sites”

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