'Thinspirations' on the Net

How about this for a weight-loss tip: “Eat six small meals a day spaced about three hours apart. At 50 calories six times a day, that is only 300 calories. Your body will thank you and so will your metabolism!” Sound stringent? It is.
Remember, “you can never be too thin”. Because, after all “being thin and not eating are signs of true willpower and success”.

You may not be aware that these “thinspirations” are within a click of your teenage daughter’s computer mouse. They form the basis of a new Internet trend: websites that espouse anorexia and other eating disorders as a “lifestyle choice”. Collectively dubbed “weborexia”, these sites are generally created and run by women under the age of 20. They offer a dreadful glimpse into the mindset of eating disorder sufferers. And they could, experts agree, trigger the disease in vulnerable visitors.

Each site provides enough material to keep any parent awake at night. Using their own cosy terminology (“Ana” is anorexia, “Mia” bulimia) the creators offer tips on how to starve and binge and how to conceal this from family and friends. They provide mottos, quotes, “commandments” and “triggers” and seem to see themselves as an underground movement united against persecution in a unique quest for “perfection”.

The “triggers” are perhaps the most immediately disturbing thing about these sites: mainly these consist of galleries showing emaciated celebrities and models in glamourous poses, some doctored to make them look even more Belsen-like, others (perhaps more worrying still) untouched. One site provides a long list of super-thin female stars ranging from Jennifer Aniston and Lara Flynn Boyle to teen “icons” like Buffy actress Sarah Michelle Geller. The height, weight and body mass index of each woman is given—no weight exceeds about 54kg. Veracity isn’t the point.

The point is that “beauty” and “success” equals emaciation. It’s a familiar media message in stark terms. The confused messages they give mirror the conflicts of the illness. One homepage begins “anorexia is a lifestyle, not a disease” before warning that: “Anorexia nervosa is a serious, potentially life-threatening eating disorder.” Many sites say things like “if you do not already have an eating disorder, back now. If you are in recovery, turn back now. Anorexia is a deadly disease.” Such warnings, of course, are about as effective as holding out a bone to a starving dog and telling it not to bite.

Inside these sites your quest for self-annihilation becomes wholly reasonable. You are taught how best to starve (chew but don’t swallow; take up smoking; punch your stomach when it rumbles). And how to hide that “perfection” (wear baggy jeans with stretch pants underneath, put rolls of pennies in your waistband). If you’re wavering, the slogans will keep you on track: after all “nothing tastes as good as being thin feels”.

The “chatrooms” are equally distressing. Conversations are divided between discussions on the calorific value of semen (is it protein or sugar?) and outbursts of despair, self-hatred and suicidal longing (“I don’t want to die, I refuse to die fat, but I’ve lost the will to live, what’s the point? I don’t think there really is one”).

Visitors are often self-aware (“If you don’t have a good head of hatred, you probably don’t have an eating disorder”), with eloquent names (“lardass”, “fatass”, “willbewaif4ever”). They exchange agonies—and often genuine support—in subgroups: “Ana’‘, “cutting” (self-mutilation), fasting, diet pills, “Mia”.

The tragedy of all this is possibly summed up best by the case of one American girl who established a “weborexic” site then died because of her eating disorder. Nobody knew the password to close the site down so it had to remain open.

Vivian Hanson Meehan, Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (Anad) president, confirms that these sites can indeed be deadly: “Receiving or providing tips to promote thinness reinforces [the anorexics’] own negative and chaotic thinking, enabling them to increase their own efforts towards ‘perfection’. Behaviours to achieve thinness become a game to win at all costs over physicians, therapists and family.’’ But could mottos like “it is far better to be thin and dead than fat and living, because to be fat is a fate worse than death” push a “normal” teenager over the edge?

According to an Eating Disorders Association survey, if your teenage daughter is like 75% of her female classmates she’ll be unhappy with her body. If she’s like 20% of them she’ll be on a diet. And it is not just teenage girls who are vulnerable, Anad says eating disorders in the eight to 11-year-old age range are increasing rapidly.

Dr Sarah Beglin, a clinical psychologist specialising in eating disorders, explains the risks: “It would be simplistic to believe that such websites are causal. Eating disorders have many causes—family, personality, socio-cultural factors.” However, “triggers like these are definitely terribly unhelpful”.

So what can be done? Thanks to campaigns from groups like Anad, portals like Yahoo and MSN now take down these websites wherever they appear. But those creating them are adept at dissemblance. Most now use addresses like Totally in Control or Living on Oxygen to conceal their “pro-Ana” purpose.

In general, though, the message from the professionals is simple: if you find that your child is visiting such sites, take it seriously.

Ultimately these sites are sad, desperate statements. Their creators need our compassion. But also our vigilance.—(c) Guardian Newspapers

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