At first, peering into her computer screen, Janice Saunders was struck by the eerie triptychs: jutting hipbones, a blade of clavicle, a rib cage in relief.
A double click brought her to message boards full of wild chatter and ghoulish advice: "Worried about that side of fries last night? Swallow half a bottle of laxatives!" "At a plateau? Try syrup of ipecac, what they use at hospitals for accidental poisoning. This helps to purge the body."
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 21, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Pro-anorexia Web site--A Feb. 12 Southern California Living story on pro-anorexia Web sites referred to a closed Web page called Thinspiration. That page has no relationship to www.thinspiration.com, which is a legitimate weight-loss site sponsored by Weight Watchers.
With each left-click, each move of the mouse, a murky world came more clearly into focus.
"It is so great to feel lean and pure and clean. Thats why I'm promoting Anorexia, although I don't think it should be labeled a 'disease.' It's not like that. Ana gives comfort, control, beauty. Everything that a girl could ask for."
Pro-anorexia? Anorexia as a desirable choice? At first, she says, still sounding a bit bewildered, "I thought it was a joke. I thought I was misreading."
But as she explored, Saunders, who has been running her own Web site, Support Concern and Resources for Eating Disorders, or SCARED, out of her home in London, Ontario, found scores of pro-anorexia--"pro-ana"--sites. Deeply disturbing pages aimed at anorexics and bulimics were filled with tips on how to protect tooth enamel from frequent episodes of purging, 2 a.m. "no-excuses" exercise regimes and photos that flaunted a death-camp aesthetic of skin and bones.
Her early explorations became a vigil. Every day she gets up at 4:30 a.m. and goes to her computer to track the activity on her site--and the others. The voices haunt her. "I live with Mia, but Ana comes to visit occasionally, " says one posting. "I no longer hide Ana from anyone," confesses another.
"Now I hate Mia and I want Ana more than anything."
"Mia"--bulimia nervosa--and "Ana"--anorexia nervosa--are the two most tenacious eating disorders. Once, many anorexics and bulimics tended to isolate themselves, say experts who have been helping clients wrestle with these complex conditions for decades. But as Saunders discovered, that is beginning to change. Within the fluid anonymity of the Internet, a new generation has made its eating disorders a unifying badge and, ultimately, a way to bond in a dangerous pursuit.
"They see this as something [to be] cherished," Saunders explains. "They tell one another that it is going to give them happiness: It's a place where they can make friends."
In this realm, "support" or "advice" doesn't mean referrals to doctor's care or tips for recovery. Rather, the hundred or so Web logs--or blogs--loops, diaries and online pro-ana communities nurture their visitors' consuming obsession with extreme thinness.
One click away from the "Thin Commandments" is the "Ana Creed": "I believe in Control, the only force mighty enough to bring order to the chaos that is my world." And just a hyperlink away from that are rated lists of "recommended" over-the-counter diet pills, supplements and laxatives. The sites, say eating-disorder experts, pose grave dangers to their most vulnerable visitors and a new set of roadblocks to those who try desperately to treat them.
"Anorexics tend to be a competitive bunch," says Jenn Berman, a Beverly Hills-based therapist who daily sees the eating disorders that take hold arise in the driven athletes and actresses she treats. "So reading that someone lost X amount of pounds just ups their activities. It's one of the reasons that group therapy isn't recommended. Anorexics try to outdo each other--in illness, not in success."
The pro-ana community is well-known to those who work with anorexics and bulimics. Saunders heard about it when a young girl battling an eating disorder visited her SCARED page and told her about the sites she had run into en route. Saunders was immediately concerned because she knew how powerfully women are drawn to the Internet as they seek self-help tips.
Five years ago, she had launched a Web page to help herself deal with depression and offer a forum to others and was surprised to see how many of her regular visitors sought help with eating disorders. SCARED evolved to support them.
Saunders wanted to see the new pro-ana sites for herself. She took to sitting on a few mailing lists, using names such as SkinnyMini. And in no time she began receiving daily e-mail reminders: "Remember. Do not eat today." Or a nudge to recite one of the Thin Commandments: "Thou shall not look at food."
She jumped in with counter-arguments--sometimes riling others enough to get kicked out of various rooms and lists. Then, last year, she began running across postings that pushed her beyond chat room spats. "One of the girls," she recalls, "was telling girls to cut off the fat off their bodies with a serrated knife! Take a pile of laxatives!'"
The mother of four daughters in their early to mid-teens, she asked herself: "Do I want [them] to read this? There are girls who are spending their money and busting their butts to get help, and this is what they are coming across."