Like so many other people, the minute I heard about Pinterest I immediately signed up for an account and starting pinning; mostly ideas of bedroom décor and recipe ideas. However, I started to see a scary trend I’ve seen so many times before on other social network forums and websites from all over the world. Under headings such as ‘motivation’ and ‘dieting tips’ hid pictures of overly thin models, actresses, and athletes, dieting suggestions, and ‘inspirational’ sayings about self-control and physical improvement. It hit me like a ton of bricks: “Oh God, pro-ana has a new home.” Recently, attention has been paid to the increase of eating disorder-related boards on Pinterest and the website was urged to respond quickly to combat this growing trend.
In reality, no one who has ever worked in the treatment or research of eating disorders should be surprised by this. Pro-ana is all over the internet and in every form of social media; often hidden, but very prominent if you know where to look (and more specifically, what to look for). For those who are unaware, pro-ana stands for pro-anorexia and pro-mia for pro-bulimia. Many pro-ana and pro-mia websites offer ‘thinspiration,’ a motto that is intended to act as a motivating factor to continue disordered eating and related behaviours, including restricting, purging, and excessive exercise. The websites offer tips for how to better restrict or purge, or how best to hide these behaviours, along with personal stories and artwork from those currently struggling with disordered eating. These websites also display terrifying images of extremely underweight individuals – many posted to encourage others to attain the same physique. Overall, many of these websites suggest ana/mia is a lifestyle rather than an illness.
Currently, if you Google pro-ana/mia, you’ll stumble upon thousands of blogs and websites. If you look a little deeper, you’ll find that many sites claiming to be anti-eating disorder are exactly the opposite. Sadly, the secretive nature of eating disorders often results in limited forms of social support outside of this subversive online community, causing many who struggle to feel as though other pro-ana users are the only people who truly understand them. Many may use these sites in order to reach out for help, or merely to be heard, only to be bombarded with harmful content that may further progress their struggle. It’s a sad and dangerous reality, and the proliferation of websites is getting worse.
Thankfully, there have been efforts to eliminate pro-ana/mia from the internet. Just a few days ago, Pinterest reacted to the rise of pro-ana images and stated that users are no longer allowed to post images that suggest self-harm, or may be physical and/or mentally harmful to others. A few weeks ago, the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) partnered with Tumblr to limit pro-ana/mia related sites. Last year, NEDA also partnered with Facebook to reduce eating disorder-themed pages and ‘support groups.’ Efforts have gone further than social media; the documentary film “Arresting Ana” describes the efforts to introduce a controversial bill in France, aiming to criminalize pro-ana sites and to allow anyone in possession of a pro-eating disorder website to be indicted and fined. Israel has also recently passed legislation banning the use of dangerously thin models in advertisements and fashion shows.
Sadly, one has to wonder about the long-term effect of these efforts. As more social networks are introduced, pro-ana/mia will continue to present itself. The more pro-ana/mia is targeted by government and society, the more concealed it may become. In the case of the proposed French legislation, targeting individuals who create pro-ana sites means, in the majority of cases, punishing those who struggle with disordered eating. Such criminalization may indirectly push pro-ana/mia further underground. It seems like an endless fight, but an increasingly important one. The majority of these efforts are well intended, and I continue to applaud organizations like NEDA for the continued attempts to combat the growing rates of eating disorders worldwide. While I wish eating disorders would disappear overnight, I know realistically they won’t. Nevertheless, I’m thankful for such movements; they finally bring attention to a secretive yet ever-present societal problem.
Kathleen Pye is a doctoral student at the University of New Brunswick. She holds a BSc in Kinesiology, an MEd in Counselling Psychology, and an MSc in Nutritional Biochemistry. As a researcher, counselor, and activist, Kathleen aims to lessen secrecy, promote awareness, build understanding, and provide assistance for those affected by eating issues and disorders. She tweets from @KathleenCanada.