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“Thin has a taste all its own”: An examination of the impact of pro-anorexia websites

 

Alexandra Scavone

December 8, 2010

 

Introduction

With the advent of the Internet, contemporary anorexia nervosa has an element previously unfathomed. The Internet provides an anonymous forum for anorexics to connect without any fear of being identified, patronized, or forced to get help. The recent and rapid emergence of pro-anorexia (dubbed “pro-ana”) websites has created a subgroup of anorexics who have created an identity that rivals the perceived norm of anorexia as a disorder “characterized by secret keeping and deception” (Harshbarger et. al).  Pro-ana websites typically “aim to promote, support and discuss anorexia nervosa” (Mulveen). These websites not only allow a visage into the minds of anorexics but also thrust their opinions, beliefs, and practices into the most public of forums. This paper intends to resolve if these pro-ana websites have a significant and observable negative impact or if they are merely high in shock value but fail to deliver in results.

 

Content of pro-ana websites

What determines if a website can be deemed pro-ana?

            It is necessary to identify some consistent characteristics found in websites determined to be pro-ana in order to accurately measure their effects on females. These websites are usually comprised of “bulletin boards and chat rooms, diaries, tips and tricks, trigger pictures, ‘thinspirations’ and links to other pro-anorexia sites in the form of web rings” (Mulveen). Three characteristics that are worrisome, prevalent, and apt to be examined and analyzed are “tips and tricks,” “ana as a lifetyle,” and “thinspiration”.

 

Tips and Tricks

The “tips and tricks” component of pro-ana websites is particularly worrisome because it represents a corruption of the Internets ability to share information by promoting unhealthy and risky behaviors. One study, conducted by Noris et. al thoroughly examined the content of 12 pro-ana websites in the effort to quantify and breakdown said content into categories that were consistently apparent and to discover the rates at which they existed.  This study determined that 67% contained a “tips and tricks” section (Noris et. al). A similar study conducted by Harshbarger et. al examined nine pro-ana websites, with the intent to inform clinicians about the prevalence and content of theses websites, discovered that combined, “a total of 1,520 separate ideas were identified […] with an average of 168.89” and that many of the sites had exact duplicates, “demonstrating the [aforementioned] sharing of ideas. Furthermore, the three most popular themes of tips were Dieting and Calorie Restriction, Distractions (from hunger/eating), and Deception, with frequencies of 28.4%, 13.9%, and 11.1%, respectively (Harshbarger et. al). The existence of tips in these topics is worrisome because they provide both dangerous information and ways to hide the disorder in order to avoid treatment. However, the pro-ana websites have an unforeseen and unintended effect in that in whatever information they provide suffering anorexics, they also provide concerned parents, loved ones, and clinicians, thus eliminating one of the primary components of anorexia nervosa – the ability to conceal the disease.

 

Thinspiration

            Thinspiration can be defined as “inspirational photo galleries and quotes that aim to serve as motivators for weight loss” (Noris et. al). In a study conducted by Noris et. al that examined 12 pro-ana websites, 92% of them were found to contain ‘thinspiration’. Examples of thinspiration include quotes like, “Nothing tastes as good as thin feels” (Noris et. al). Thinspiration also can be pictures such as the one of the supermodel below:

 

 

Description: ::Desktop:anorexia-thinspiration-model-pro-ana-1.jpg 

(Photo credit: http://ednosgirl.wordpress.com/thinspiration/)

 

 

Ana as a Lifestyle

        Previously mentioned, Ruaidhri Mulveen and Julie Hepwroth conducted a study of pro-anorexia websites in which the researchers used an interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA) of fifteen “message threads” (internet forums with primary topic that is discussed by any member of the site who decides to post) over a six-week period on a pro-ana site in order to examine the experiences of individuals who participated in posting on these message threads. IPA, a technique which gathers and analyzes participants talk and behavior and analyzes its relation to cognition, was selected because it allows for unobtrusive observation of the type of discussion that occurs on pro-ana site’s message threads thus not comprising data collection; furthermore, the study aimed to understand the thoughts of the members who posted on the selected message threads  (Mulveen). The study determined that one recurrent theme throughout these message threads is the idea of “ana as a lifestyle” which is the expression that women choose “ana” as “an extreme method of weight loss that deliberately uses similar techniques as those used by individuals with anorexia nervosa” rather than consider themselves victims afflicted with the severe mental illness anorexia nervosa (Mulveen). Those who “choose ana” distinguish ana from anorexia by pointing to their awareness of and control over their eating patterns; those who identified as having ana believed that their weight loss was the result of their “free will” and that they are mentally sound whereas anorexics are not. Remarkably, those who chose ana and diagnosed anorexics provided different reasons for using the pro-ana website. Those who identified as anorexics seemed to use the website for social support and a way to maintain their low body weight while avoiding dreaded recovery; in contrast, those who identified as being ‘ana’ used the website as a source of information on improving the effects and safety of their extreme dieting (Mulveen).

 

Popularity of pro-ana websites

            A 2006 study             by Wilson et. al  sought to identify what percentage of adolescents afflicted with eating disorders and their parents were aware of and/or visited pro-eating disorder websites and if it had any type of effect on health and body satisfaction. Anonymous surveys containing questions about the illness and awareness and usage of pro-ED websites were mailed and offered in clinics to 698 families of patients diagnosed with an eating disorder; 182 surveys were returned from 76 patients and 106 parents. The results showed that 35.5% of patients visited pro-ED sites, with 96% of these visitors learning new purging or weight loss methods. Furthermore, 41% of patients visited pro-recovery sites, where 46.4% of visitors learned new methods (Wilson et. al).

 

Effects of Pro-Ana Websites

Health and Emotional Outcomes

In the aforementioned study by Wilson et. al, site users did not report different health outcomes than nonusers, but did suffered from illness longer and were hospitalized more often than nonusers. The results were conclusive that pro-ED site usage was popular among youths. Furthermore, Wilson et. al deduced that pro-ED site usage may negatively effect adolescents welfare and expose them to disorded eating behavior which may lead to their embracing of this behavior (Wilson et. al).

Another experiment, conducted by Dr. Anna M. Bardone-Cone and Kamila M. Cass, had 235 female undergraduates exposed to either a prototypic pro-anorexia website, or a comparison websites featuring “normal” sized models on the topics of female fashion or home décor. Post-viewing, thoughts, behaviors and emotions were recorded and analyzed, with those who viewed the pro-anorexia website exhibiting “greater negative affect, lower social self-esteem, and lower appearance self-efficacy post-website” when compared to participants who viewed either of the comparison websites. Additionally they and “perceived themselves as heavier, reported a greater likelihood of exercising and thinking about their weight in the near future, and engaged in more image comparison” supporting the supposition that pro-anorexia websites can be classified as having a negative affect on female self-esteem, even regardless of the presence or lack of an eating disorder (Bardone-Cone).

 

Final Thoughts and Summation

Literature Evaluation

                    The primary concern when reviewing these studies is that most of the research is done from observation of pro-ana websites. Firstly, because of the controversial material of these websites, many of these websites are booming one day and then shutdown the next. This makes collecting data difficult because any website under consideration in an experiment may not exist suddenly in the middle of the study. Furthermore, many of these articles are not studies conducted on individuals but rather compilations of analyzed information taken off of these pro-ana websites. The quality and reliability of the websites is thus called into consideration. A fundamental component of anorexia is deception; anorexics are delusional about their own weight and appearance, deceive themselves of their need to stop and get help despite the extreme adverse health and psychological affects and the key to being a successive anorexia involves the ability to deceive others of the existence of the disease. How accurate then is the notion of “ana as a lifestyle” when it may arguably be suffering anorexics trying to conceive themselves that they are not sick and thus do not need help. Furthermore, the validity of a study must be somewhat comprised if it takes information from amateur websites. For this reason, I included the study that created a prototypic pro-ana site and examined the cognitions and emotions of participants post-viewing. While this experiment did seem to suggest that pro-ana websites can have adverse effects on body image and self-perception, these negative effects may be likened to viewing an media that sends the image of thinness = happiness.

 

Conclusion

                    After weighing the results of the studies and examining their validity, it is a definite conclusion that pro-ana websites are provoking indeed. It is also suggestive that these websites may negatively impact female self-esteem and body perception. It is not conclusive, however, that they do. It seems that these websites carry more in shock value than anything else. Of course, anorexia is incredibly disturbing, and the promotion of something so against human nature does reasonably incite extreme concerns. More than anything, it seems that pro-ana websites are expressing a viewpoint that is highly uneasy for most to comprehend. Because of this, it seems fair to conclude that clinicians and concerned parents should be aware of pro-ana websites when dealing with anorexic patients and children, and should be on the lookout for behaviors described on the website. In closing it is important to acknowledge that pro-ana websites in actuality have not been a huge endangerment and it would be highly unlikely for them to develop into such.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

 

Bardone-Cone, A. M., & Cass, K. M. (2007). Experimental Examination if Website Exposure and Moderating Effects. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 40(6), 537-548. Retrieved December 4, 2010, from the Google Scholar  database.

 

Harshbarger, J. L., Ahlers-Schmidt, C. R., Mayans, L., Mayans, D., & Hawkins, J. (2008). Pro-anorexia websites: What a clinician should know. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 42(4), 367-370. Retrieved December 5, 2010, from the Google Scholar database.

 

Mulveen, R., & Hepworth, J. (2006). An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of Participiation in a Pro-anorexia Internet Site and Its Relationship with Disordered Eating . Journal of Health Psychology, 11, 283-296. Retrieved October 5, 2010, from the Google Scholar database.

 

Norris, M. L., Boydell, K. M., Pinhas, L., & Katzman, D. K. (2006). Ana and the Internet: A review of pro-anorexia websites. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 39(6), 443-447. Retrieved October 4, 2010, from the Google Scholar database.

 

Wilson, J. L., Peebles, R., Hardy, K. K., & Litt, I. F. (2006). Surfing for Thinness: A pilot study of pro-eating disorder web site usage in adolescents with eating disorders. Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, 118(6). Retrieved December 5, 2010, from the Google Scholar database.

 

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