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.”
Yeshua-Katz also noted that, of the 33 women interviewed, 27 defined their eating disorder as an illness and six described it as a coping mechanism. Only three referred to anorexia as a “lifestyle.” Nearly 20 percent of the women in the study said that they were in the process of undergoing treatment and, when a blogger said she wished to stop self-harm behavior and seek treatment, the community was supportive.
As Nicole Martins, an assistant professor of telecommunications at IU, says in Science Daily,
“These communities are providing support, albeit supporting an illness that may result in someone’s death. But until they’re ready to go and seek recovery on their own terms, this might actually be a way of prolonging their life, so that they are mentally ready to tackle their recovery process.
“From the outside looking in, this looks like a really disturbing community, but I think that the fact that these women are able to find support from one another and find a place where someone understands what they’re going through is a really good thing.”
A patient seeking out support is seen as “a good predictor of compliance and treatment leading to a cure” in the medical community,†says Science Daily. Disordered eating is a very “solitary and isolating experience,” the researchers say, and the internet is therefore “an ideal place for offering support and advice.” Yeshua-Katz and Martins emphasized that they hope the medical community might be provided with a greater understanding about anorexics.
As the researchers write, “people living with eating disorders are not purposely making unhealthy or health-compromising decisions. They are trying to find the best way they can to live with this disorder.”
What do you think about this study? Can there be any benefits to pro-ana sites?
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