Dying To Be Thin: The Dangerous Online Communities That Glorify And Promote Eating Disorders
In the late evening hours of Jan. 26, 2007, Kristi Lanford logged onto her Live Journal blog from her home in Kirkland, Wash., one last time.
“I feel like all I do lately is talk about suicide and depression and I don't want it to come across like I'm fishing for compliments or seeking attention or expecting people to tell me good things about myself, or trying to talk me out. I'm not meaning to be dramatic or cry wolf or worry anyone or any of that,” she wrote.
The time was 10:19 pm.
“I'm simply expressing what is in my head and right now it's not good.”
Kristi had struggled with anorexia and bulimia for more than 25 years.
Psychiatric counseling had done little to improve her low self-esteem, but at 34, Kristi found a new therapeutic outlet in the form of blogging.
On Live Journal, she was able to cultivate and moderate a community of peers suffering the same plight; a network for those who, like Kristi, were unable to exorcise the demons that spurred on their eating disorders. It was a community that offered a sense of belonging to those who lived each day feeling alienated.
Kristi’s community was just one of many that operated under the umbrella of the pro-anorexia, or pro-ana, movement, and was founded at a time when the phenomenon was spreading like wildfire across the Internet.
It’s a phenomenon that found a home on the Internet more than a decade ago. Since then, the web has been flooded with blogs, forums, image reels, videos and microsites that celebrate and support individuals with eating disorders.
While some offer counseling and support to those striving to overcome such disorders, many more glorify them.
Others post pictures with the tag #thighgap, proudly sharing their achievements of becoming so slim that when their feet come together, their thighs don’t touch.
On forums like myproana.com, members list their body dimensions and weight goals, collaborating with other pro-anas on dieting and purging tips. Some post images under their member profile with messages of "thinspiration" like “waking up thinner is worth going to bed hungry.”
Other websites provide instructions and rules for maintaining the pro-ana lifestyle. Rules like “Do not, under any circumstances, eat after 6:00,” or “Ana must be at the center of your life.”
While the pro-ana community has grown for quite some time now, its heyday was in the mid-2000s, around the time that Kristi first became involved.
A study by Optenet found that between 2006 and 2008, the number of websites promoting anorexia and bulimia increased by 470 percent.
The vast majority of these sites (84 percent), encourage the eating disorders rather than providing recovery support, according to a 2010 survey published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Much of the web’s "thinspiration" content takes the form of video montages of slender celebrities, images of women with protruding bones, inspirational mantras, quotes and song lyrics.
However, there is ample "reverse thinspiration" online as well. Posts featuring fatty foods or overweight people are promoted and proliferated to arouse disgust and further encourage starvation.
While eating disorders can develop at any point in an individual’s life, people are most susceptible to develop them between ages 13 and 19.
“At that age you’re very vulnerable,” said Margo Maine, Ph.D., who has treated eating disorders for almost four decades.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 40-60 percent of elementary school girls aged 6-12 now experience concern about their weight or fear becoming too fat.
These girls risk joining the ranks of 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States who suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lives. With "thinspiration" pervading the web, that risk is only amplified.
“It’s taken on a whole new life,” said Claire Mysko, project consultant for NEDA in an interview with Mashable. “Now they’re everywhere you turn. There are entire sites and hashtags devoted to these types of images.”
Experts warn that if you’re at risk of developing an eating disorder, images and weight management tips can trigger a full-blown psychological illness.
Rather than treat eating disorders as a pathological illness, the "thinspiration" movement celebrates anorexia and bulimia as a lifestyle choice.
A 2009 study published in the European Eating Disorders Review found that in girls, “visiting pro-anorexia websites was associated with a higher drive for thinness, worse perception of appearance and more perfectionism.”
“In our culture for women, being thin is still seen as pinnacle as success,” said Maine.
Social media platforms like Pinterest and Tumblr have attempted to combat the prevalence of "thinspiration" content on their sites, banning content that actively promotes self-injury or self-harm. But those efforts have done little to stem the flow of pro-ana images on their pages.
Regardless of these steps that popular social media sites have taken to restrict objectionable content, little can be done to regulate the promotion of anorexia on personal websites and blogs.
This is where the pro-ana movement continues to thrive, drawing in women and men like Kristi who desire approval and admiration above all else.
Regrettably, they rarely deliver on that promise, instead driving vulnerable individuals deeper into the clutches of despair.
A 2007 study by the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that participants who visited pro-anorexia websites experienced negative effects after viewing the pages, experiencing both a decrease in self-esteem and perceived attractiveness.
While the pro-ana community can provide a sense of belonging, it can also lead to further isolation as individuals compare themselves to images of their peers who might appear thinner and happier.
It’s a sense of isolation that Kristi likely felt when she sat down to write her final posts on Live Journal six years ago.
“All of my spare energy these days are going to my acquaintances (proanorexia mostly) and those are people who need guidance, yes, but most of them don't know me from Adam and have somehow gotten it in their heads that I'm some harsh power-hungry b*tch trying to curtail free speech and ban people for sneezing wrong,” she wrote.
“Really, who am I to make judgments on anyone anyway - It's not like I was elected to this "job" because everyone thought I would be the best person for it,” Kristi vented, feeling overwhelmed by her role as moderator for the proanorexia Live Journal forum.
“I need to be perfect and I also feel like that's all anyone will allow me to be. I make a mistake and everyone jumps down my throat - don't you get that I hate me enough for all of us combined?”
Shortly after posting those final sentences, Kristi visited a pharmacy to pick up anti-nausea medication.
Two hours later, after calling her brother to tell him that she loved him, she logged back onto the blog to make one final statement.
“So, just took 3 Clonazepam, 2 Ambien, and 10 Darvon. 30 more Darvon to go if I want to die. I can stop at any time and be fine I think so I haven't make THE decision yet. Not sure why I'm updating - think I'll go watch TV and drink my Hennessy in front of the lovely fire I have going.”
Soon after, Kristi died from an intentional drug overdose.
In the following days, someone else took over as moderator on the proanorexia Live Journal forum, posting the following message to the site’s members while addressing Kristi’s death.
“Anorexics and others have no one to talk to. Surrounded by people, they are all alone in the world. Here they can find those who share their experience, who can comfort them in times of despair – people who can give them advice, give them hope, give them motivation.”
“If they ask, they might also get real, valid, healthful advice – restricting calories can be quite healthy if done correctly, often without need of gaining any weight.”
Note: If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, there are organizations that provide the resources and tools to support and promote healthy recovery. Please visit the National Eating Disorder Association or We Bite Back for help.