The Thin Line

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<b>Pro-ana Web sites promote an &#147;anorexic lifestyle&#148; and even provide &#147;how-to&#148; advice. Some say ban them. Others advise heeding the message between the lines<b>
Today was a good day. No breakfast. I ate a carrot for lunch. I’m not a big fan of carrots. I think that for the amountof calories in them, they should taste more like a fruit. For dinner I made some steamed vegetables....Had a little coffee and a couple diet cokes during the day. This evening I will go for a long walk or a medium run of 3-4 miles.

This isn’t pinched from an old Helen Gurley Brown editorial. (This is more disconcerting than anything the queen of Cosmopolitan ever dreamt up.) It’s from the daily journal section of a Web site calledAna By Choice, a pro-anorexia — or “pro-ana” — site.

They have names such as Anorexic Nation, Hungry for Perfection and Living on Oxygen. No one is sure how long they’ve been around, but, according to a report published in the Ontario Health Promotion E-Bulletin, there are now hundreds of them.

Chrystie Myketiak is a graduate student whose research centres on technology, the Internet and feminism. She has written critically about the pro-ana movement. “Before the pro-ana sites came about,” says Myketiak, “looking at eating disorders in a ‘positive’ way [as pro-ana sites do] could only be done through networks of friends.”

The literature, after all, tells us things like how the under-eating and over-exercising associated with anorexia nervosa can result in lowered blood pressure, shrinkage of muscles and organs, and osteoporosis. Fifteen per cent of those with the disorder die from problems directly related to their illness. Other eating disorders, such as bulimia, are no less risky. People with bulimia will binge eat, use laxatives and induce vomiting, which can lead to tooth decay, chest pain and kidney dysfunction. The Internet is also home to many “pro-mia” sites.

Eating disorders are more common among women than among men. The incidence of anorexia and bulimia in women compared to men hovers around ninety-five per cent.In Canada, most women — seventy per cent — obsess about their weight. Ninety per cent find flaws with some part of their bodies. And 750,000 women and girls have an eating disorder.

“The larger world never gives girls the message that their bodies are valuable simply because they are inside them,” argues Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth. “Until our culture tells young girls that they are welcome in any shape — that women are valuable with or without the excuse of ‘beauty’ — girls will continue to starve.” It’s a warning that seems to be lost on the pro-ana movement.

"Pro-ana sites advocate anorexia with ‘helpful hints’ for starving yourself that people might not find out on their own,” explains Myketiak. “If you’re isolated from other people experiencing one of the eating disorders, the sites provide you with ‘friends’ to help you along, making it worse.”

Pro-ana sites exploit many advantages of the Web: the ability for anyone with a computer and a little know-how to have a voice and share their ideas online, the capacity to provide informationat a relatively low cost and to create an interactive community, via message boards or chat rooms, with like-minded readers. They also throw into relief the disadvantages of the Web — reams of often unreliable information from sometimes difficult to pinpoint sources.

While the people behind these sites say they’re creating a space where those with eating disorders can find understanding and acceptance, others argue that acceptance of a life-threatening disorder isn’t something to strive for — and that the eating-no-breakfast-is-a-sign-of-a-good-day philosophy of pro-ana simply encourages already-sick women to get sicker.

Take Ana By Choice. The site includes a gallery with “thinsperational” photos of the likes of Calista Flockhart and Kate Moss. Forum discussions — like “When did your period stop?” and “How do YOU throw up?” — include posts that are signed off with Cosmo-esque listings of highest weight, lowest weight, current weight and goal weight. Tips include, “When you feel like eating, do something else. Walk, clean, exercise, anything to distract you.” Recommended excuses range from “I’m allergic to this or that food” to “No thanks, I ate a huge breakfast (or lunch).”

Visiting these sites is like walking through a hall of fun-housemirrors. What you see is distorted, but it’s a reflection of something real.

The visitor counter on Ana By Choice reads 199,633. It’s not clear who runs thissite and a ‘whois’ search — that reveals the owner of a domain name — turns up a dead-end hotmail address.

Whoever wrote the “Letter To All” had this to say: “My intent with thiscommunity is only to make a place where people who live with an eatingdisorder can get together and discuss their trials and tribulations, as well as their joys and accomplishments.” Posts in the forum support thoseefforts: “This site is my lifesaver by far! It’s inspired me so much!! You guys are truly sweethearts! I’m so glad I’ve found this place!”

So what’s to be done about these sites? Ban them, right? Not everyone thinks so. “Those involved with sites that are pro-ana have every right to have a community and anetwork and friends just like everyone else,” says Myketiak. And while she acknowledges the danger these communities pose to their members, she doesn’t support pulling them off the Net.

Myketiak is not alone in her views. Sheena’s Place is a support centre for people with eating disorders and their families. Program director Ann Kerr says the sites are “very, very upsetting,” but argues they are also “a window into the world of an eating disorder.”

“It’s not a pretty sight,” she says, “but you learn something from it. You can’t shut the world off.”

Some Internet companies are trying. In July 2001, Yahoo! became the first to take pro-ana sites off its server (others have done the same) because they violate its terms of service, which, among other things, excludes anything that is obscene, hateful, unlawful or harmful to minors.

Removing the sites, however, isn’t necessarily the best solution for thosewith eating disorders.

“If people are concerned about solving a problem, Idon’t think that shutting down a Web site will do that,” says MelanieCishecki, executive director of MediaWatch, a national non-profit that fights sexism in the media. The problem, as she sees it, is in the limited time and resources put into prevention.

There are people currently putting resources into Web sites that refute the pro-ana stance. And that, says Kerr, is the answer: sites that are compelling and welcoming, with stories about recovering from eating disorders. (Like Something Fishy, Good Girls Do Swallow and Make Up Your Mind.)

As distorted as the pro-ana movement may seem to outsiders, these young women are using the Web to articulate their experiences of the world and of their bodies in it.

We should listen. What they have to say says a lot about our society.

Of course, we’d rather these sites didn’t exist, that no one starved or went running as a reparation, that no one agonized over the calorie content of carrots.

What a day that would be.

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