Pro-Ana Sites Have Benefits, Says New Study

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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Vicky Pitchford
Vicky P5 years ago

there is nothing good about encouraging someone to starve themselves

Robert Ludwig
Robert Ludwig5 years ago

Lifestyle choice? I suppose you could say depression, bi-polar, schizophrenia, and autism are lifestyle choices too. You can justify a lot of neglect and abuse that way.

Cindy B.
Cindy B5 years ago

Jadore S: I am so happy to read your insightful comments. It's rare that anorexics develop insights such as yours. So you have bad teeth and thin hair... YOU'RE ONLY 21! You have so much time to benefit from your insights, to turn things around. Man, I only wish I was just 21. I could conquer the world! Bless you and I wish you all the luck in the world.

Sherrie Brunell
Sherrie Brunell5 years ago

I understand how great it is to go to a forum where your particular disease can be discussed openly without stigma. Believe me, I have Crohn's disease, which in addition to pain, nausea and lack of appetite, has many other "bathroom" issues that are embarrassing to discuss with those who do not have the disease and cannot understand how terrible chronic diarrhea can truly be. I know what it is like to tell somebody what I'm thinking and feeling about dealing with this disease only to have them give me a hard time about the fact that it's a "pooping" disease, so to have a place where we can go and share our stories without stigma or embarrassment is wonderful.

However, I think providing support to help somebody deal with an illness is different than a sight that encourages the thinking, feelings, and behavior that make the disease worse. The equivalent would be if one of the Crohn's sites I visit encouraged us to eat fast food and discontinue our medication. While it is certainly within their right to do so, and it is my right to eat whatever I want despite what it will do to me, it isn't going to help anybody become healthier or better.

You can support people dealing with a disease in a way that doesn't stigmatize them or their symptoms without encouraging them to engage in behavior that makes those symptoms worse.

Marie W.
Marie W5 years ago

Jury still out.

Sue H.
Sue H5 years ago

While I am glad that they did this study and found positive information, I really believe that we need more evidence. Only 33 out of 300 sites responded. What about the 267 that didn't participate?

Duane B.
.5 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jadore S.
Jadore F5 years ago

I'm ashamed that I used to buy into pro-ana and pro-mia. It's cost me countless opportunities (swimming, gymnastics, education, potential friends, potential boyfriends), and I'm now 21 and have zero to show for it. Just thinness, thin hair, and bad teeth. It's truly not worth it anymore. Feeling very hopeless now.

Joan S.
JC S5 years ago

I do believe Anorexia is a disease like Alcoholism. Once embroiled in it it's hard to crawl out. Like any of the addictive diseases the person needs to want to get better. A site that helps them talk about their feelings and such is a good thing, a site that encourages and supports the action of turning into a skeleton is whack.

Randy Robertson
Randy Robertson5 years ago

Did I have an eating disorder as a young child? Upon being weaned, I strongly disliked cooked/processed food. My Mom (bless her soul!) gave me a choice...raw or cooked. I chose raw food...everything raw!!! Meat, included. My IQ hit the low 140's. I got Hep A from seafood once..cooked oysters. My liver was basically not functioning...90% not functioning!!! The Doctor couldn't help as any meds are processed by the liver, and mine wasn't working. Rest was prescribed...and time. Maybe a year to get better!!! Mom started putting raw veggies through a juicer/blender. Upon my 2 week check-up/liver scan, the Doctor wanted to re-do the tests...something was amiss...test liver showed no sign of Hep A. The follow-up test? The same thing!!! Clean!!! The Doctor was amazed and queried Mom as to what she fed me. He had never heard of such a quick healing and said that some research needs to be done!!!