Chloe Plescher: The hidden, online world of pro-anorexia

Thursday, September 19, 2019 - 2:56pm

As body positivity has grown in popularity on social media, eating disorders such as binge eating, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa have become more understood by American society. Social media accounts and movements, like I Weigh, have protested the diet culture impeding Americans by criticizing society for pushing diet pills and fads. Instead, people are encouraged to value themselves beyond their bodies. However, while body positivity is clearly beneficial, an opposite movement still slithers through social media. Pro-anorexia, or pro-ana for short, is the online promotion of weight-loss eating disorders, mainly anorexia and bulimia.

Pro-ana developed with the internet, beginning its online presence in the 1990s and continuing today through online forums, blogs and popular social media. However, each pro-ana medium is different in its approach. The most extreme are those who believe in Ana (anorexia) as a goddess they must worship and follow. There are commandments, prayers and creeds dangerously dictating how people must live to become a true anorexic. The second level are those in forums or social media accounts who believe anorexia is good, but not in a religious sense. For example, they do not worship anorexia or bulimia as a goddess, but they still believe in the disease as a lifestyle. Rules and tips regarding food and exercise are still shared to encourage themselves and others. Ana buddies are formed to motivate others through their fasting, purging and exercising. When rules are broken, pro-ana users abuse each other to trigger them into not eating. This level bleeds into the final one: those who have an eating disorder but do not see it as a blessing. Yet, they still take to social media to post “thinspirational” photos and quotes, using the websites as self-motivation to continue their harmful behaviors while simultaneously encouraging others to recover.

While the harm these websites cause is obvious, pro-ana is an addictive distraction. Pro-ana sites and blogs are a playground to capture vulnerable people and keep them in their eating disorders. The websites serve to justify dangerous, disordered behaviors and breaks the temptation to recover. Yet, pro-ana is readily accessible. Finding pro-ana is as simple as a Google search, where photos of emaciated women pop up with accompanying quotes. Rhymes such as “skip dinner, wake up thinner” and “hungry to bed, hungry to rise makes a girl a smaller size” are there for anyone including children to see and become influenced. Furthermore, the top result after searching pro-ana is a link to the hashtag on Twitter, followed by pro-ana websites. With a simple scroll, adults and children can find accounts posting goal weights, body photos, new diets and tracked calories. Pro-ana is a treacherous world easily preying on the vulnerable.

Anorexia is the mental illness with the highest mortality rate, with 20 percent of the deaths being from suicide, but pro-ana still deserves to be taken as seriously as suicide. Consider the case of Michelle Carter, who was rightfully sentenced to 15 months in prison for encouraging her boyfriend to commit suicide. Pro-ana does the same but on a wider level, yet only Pinterest and Tumblr have banned the content. Even a Google search of pro-ana does not prompt links to the National Eating Disorders Association hotline, as it does when someone Googles "prosuicide." Obviously, pro-ana is more sneaky and subtle in its suicidal ideations, as websites and accounts continue to fly under the radar. However, action must still be taken to make pro-ana harder to find, and search engines providing resources is an easy way to further prevention.

Eating disorders are painful and hazardous illnesses, and it is time search engine enterprises and social media companies treat it seriously. By allowing the promotion of anorexia and other eating disorders, companies become partially responsible for the development and continuance of such disorders. There is no value in allowing such easy access to pro-ana content. Especially since pro-ana views eating disorders as lifestyle choices and not diseases, the risks of eating disorders are overlooked. Pro-ana validates and worships unhealthy, skeletal bodies, and it pushes people to slowly kill themselves through starving, purging, abusing laxatives and over exercising.

Social media companies like Instagram and Twitter can join other companies in removing pro-ana content. Instagram has already made strides by banning 17 pro-ana hashtags in 2012, marking them against their terms of service, though this actually made the problem worse by encouraging alternative hashtags – so Instagram can do more. There are still more than 250 hashtag variations open. With technological advancement, Instagram can afford a team to find the current hashtags and block them. Of course, new variations will form and users will continuously find ways to share content drug addicts always find a dealer. But banning hashtags does make pro-ana harder to find, especially for newer viewers and children. Additionally, the recommendation algorithms can be reformed to screen hashtags before promoting them in a feed. Banning pro-ana content is time-consuming work, but it is necessary to help prevention of eating disorders and suicide. 

However, companies are not the only ones who can make a difference. Social media users can help prevent the spread of pro-ana by counteracting it with pro-recovery. Organizations such as the National Eating Disorders Association, I Weigh and Beating Eating Disorders provide communal support without promoting toxicity. Personal Instagram accounts like @srsly_why and @nourishandeat provide positive outlooks on recovery and show that eating disorder recovery is possible. There is understanding and support for those with eating disorders without promoting an eating disorder. Pro-ana is not the only option. Anorexia and other eating disorders are lonely diseases, but recovery provides extensive resources and communities to foster positivity and health. 

Chloe Plescher can be reached at chloebp@umich.edu.