I Would Have Been “Pro-ana”: Why Teens Need Alternatives to Websites that Promote Eating Disorders

Image via Joanne Bamberger. All rights reserved

If the big, bad interwebs had been a thing when my middle school calorie counting was veering into full-blown eating disorder territory, I would almost certainly have found myself in the pro-ana and pro-mia universe, a vast network of websites dedicated to promoting anorexia and bulimia as lifestyle choices.

I would have been the perfect pro-ana recruit: I took pride in my ability to restrict, I sought out pictures of emaciated models as “thinspiration” and I had zero interest in acknowledging that my obsession with food and weight was a problem. In fact, that description fits most girls and young women who are caught up in dangerous cycles of disordered eating. But I was also a teen of the 90s. Our family’s Tandy computer was good for playing Carmen Sandiego and that’s about it. I was limited to cutting images out of fashion magazines and looking for tips and tricks in the cheesy YA novels about eating disorders I found at the library. It all seems rather quaint when compared to the volume of information young people can access right at their fingertips today.

There have been plenty of sensational news stories about the dark forces of pro-ana, and pro-ana websites are indeed a frightening phenomenon. But these communities are not being formed by scheming villains lurking in the shadows. They are made up of people who started on diets and got hooked on the positive attention they received when the pounds first began to melt away, girls who have fallen prey to the constant barrage of media messages telling them that thinness is their ticket to happiness. Pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia communities attract young people who are depressed and vulnerable. I was in that boat once. I was desperate to be heard, and that kind of desperation is exactly what makes these sites so dangerous. They provide a forum for eating disorder sufferers to speak up and build relationships–but in all the wrong ways.

Now there is a positive alternative. I’m excited to be overseeing the launch of Proud2Bme, the National Eating Disorders Association’s (NEDA) new online community for teens. The site offers young people an opportunity to connect with each other in a safe, supportive space. It highlights stories of recovery and activism from teens including Emily-Anne Rigal, who started WeStopHate after being bullied about her weight; Julie Zeilinger, founder of the f bomb, who spoke out about perfectionism and body hatred; and the Boulder Youth Body Alliance, a group of young women who went to Capitol Hill to advocate for better eating disorders prevention and treatment.  We will also feature expert advice, a special section for parents and resources for educators.

So how will Proud2Bme compete with pro-ana? The site already has a solid track record in the Netherlands, where it originated. Scarlet Hemkes, a young woman in recovery from eating disorders herself started Proud2Bme as part of a campaign to combat pro-ana sites. She got a lot of hate mail from steadfast pro-ana supporters, but she also built a huge community of followers that includes millions of young women who have come to embrace the pro-recovery message. Proud2Bme.nl is now the top visited help website in the Netherlands. NEDA is now bringing the Proud2Bme movement to the U.S.

Pro-ana sites are echo chambers of dysfunction. Girls who are struggling need a light bulb to illuminate how much their disordered eating is taking from them and how little they are getting in return. They need to get pissed off at how royally screwed up our culture is when it comes to weight. They need to find their voices. Unfortunately, pro-ana gives voice to the eating disordered thoughts and behaviors, not the individuals struggling with them. Proud2Bme aims to change that.

Guest contributor Claire Mysko is an expert on body image, leadership and media literacy. She is the author of You’re Amazing! A No-Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self, an award-winning self-esteem manual for girls and Does This Pregnancy Make Me Look Fat? The Essential Guide to Loving Your Body Before and After Baby. Claire has also served as the director of the American Anorexia Bulimia Association and spearheaded the launch of pioneering online communities at Girls Incorporated and SmartGirl.

 

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