To say that pro-ana blogs and websites — an online community for those with eating disorders — are controversial is an understatement. While some say they exist as a non-judgmental space for anorexics to seek support for their mental illness, others sites make the highly disturbing claim that anorexia is not an illness but rather a “lifestyle” choice. So how can a new study in the journal Health Communication say, in contrast to media reports and other research about the pro-ana community, that there are benefits to the pro-ana sites?
33 bloggers from seven different countries were interviewed by researchers from Indiana University. (300 bloggers had been contacted and the ten percent response is statistically significant.) Both male and female bloggers were contacted but only women responded. Most of those who responded were in high school or college; aged 15 to 33, two-thirds were from the US.
Anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric disorder in which individuals lose between 15 and 60 percent of their body weight and are susceptible to osteoporosis and cardiac ailments which can lead to death. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, anorexia affected more than 11 million people in the US in 2010. Of any mental illness, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate, while the mortality rate associated with anorexia is twelve times higher than the death rate for all causes of death for 15-24 year old females.
Anorexics, Stigma and Social Media
The study differed from earlier ones in that researchers actually interviewed pro-ana bloggers, while previous studies have focused on analyzing the admittedly troubling content of pro-ana sites. Indeed, some pro-ana sites have been shut down by internet providers after complaints from eating disorder support groups.
Daphna Yeshua-Katz, a doctoral student in telecommunications in the IU College of Arts and Sciences and the study’s lead author, researches how marginalized individuals use social media to mediate their stigma. Citing studies showing that anorexics and bulimics often feel stigmatized, Yeshua-Katz notes that the blogs are used “to look for support and understanding, but at the same time, the content that they display is something for us — people who are not sick — very disturbing.” Bloggers find the sites “a place to vent out and express themselves without judgment of others,” of parents, therapists and friends friends whose well-intentioned urgings to eat and “get well” may only leave those with eating disorders defiant.
Other studies have said that pro-ana sites promote and maintain anorexia. But only five of the bloggers in the study said they had created their sites to share weight-lost tips; the researchers found that most bloggers “did actively engage in ways to warn their audience about the content and ignored or blocked requests for tips and tricks from what they nicknamed ‘wannarexics’ — young teenagers who want to become anorexic.”
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