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Nurturing an Anorexia Obsession

'Pro-ana' Web sites tout the eating disorder as a choice, not an illness, to the horror of experts.

February 12, 2002|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saunders contacted Internet service providers, demanding that the sites be shut down for offering content that harms minors. No response. Eventually, though, her protests, along with those of others who had begun to informally organize on her site, got attention. Last summer, Saunders returned from a vacation to find her online mailbox overflowing with messages, their subject lines rejoicing: "We won!" or "Congratulations! They've closed the sites!' I thought, 'Oh my God! That's great!'"

But in just a few short weeks, the pro-ana pages were back--all over the Internet.

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Again and again, under slightly altered names or camouflaged by coded keywords, these sites and their Webmasters rebuild and resurface, sometimes slightly disguised, but each time more emboldened. "They are fighting a losing battle," one Webmaster recently wrote. "I will just keep showing up."

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.

In the United States, the battle was joined by such health care professionals as Holly Hoff, director of programs for the National Eating Disorders Assn., based in Seattle. Her organization's efforts paralleled Saunders', as her group sent letters to Yahoo and other service providers that were hosting the sites. Yahoo took note in August and was the first to begin closing pro-ana sites and clubs, citing their harmful or threatening content. Other service providers followed suit. But again, the sites reemerged elsewhere.

Many eating-disorders specialists see shadings of their patients' complex profile in the Webmasters' tenacity.

Frequently, says Hoff, anorexics and bulimics "tend to be women who are perfectionists, goal-achieving. They are the good students, the good child, the good mate, the good friend." So the doggedness fits the profile.

"These sites illustrate an extreme representation of the illness," says Margo Maine, a Connecticut-based therapist and author of "Body Wars: Making Peace With Women's Bodies" (Gurze Books, 1999). "More than just a diagnosis, it becomes their total identity, this badge of illness."

Extremely Ana, Tiny Dancer, Stick Figures, Only Popular W/Anorexia, Wanna B Skinny, Thinspiration and Dying for Perfection are just a few Web sites that have recently been shuttered or slipped from plain sight. Of the sites that remain, some are zine-like blogs with a tumble of busy graphics that recall inky notebook doodlings or hasty post-punk cut-and-paste locker collages. Others are crowded chat rooms or hyperlinked Web rings. Compulsion, and a desperate, unattainable desire for control, are everywhere.

"I ate 780 calories the other day and I still feel like I want to die, (I wrote 'fat pig' on my left leg in marker, that seemed to help a bit), so I went home and went running at 2:30 a.m. About 7 miles I try to maintain a sense of balance."

With their misspellings, muddy graphics or stream-of-consciousness entries, some of these sites may look amateurish--even harmless. But therapists are already seeing alarming evidence of their effects. Their casual tone and imperfections, like a voice of a friend, are, in fact, their power.

And that easy intimacy drowns out the concerns of friends, therapists and families in the minds of those with eating disorders.

"Right away you see the skepticism," says therapist Berman, bent over the laptop propped open on her office desk, a page open to Friday night action on one pro-ana site. The boards are alive; postings arrive every few minutes. Their hyperactivity, says Berman, is part of the compulsive profile: Some posts flame a TV drama's depiction of bulimia--sight unseen. Others complain about doctor visits or stew over a concerned husband's attempt to force a meal--"at least a chicken nugget.""There's a real we-versus-them aspect," Berman says. "But all these people want to be thin as opposed to being well."

Indeed, the sites paint "Ana as lifestyle" in vivid brushstrokes: Waif as elegant aesthetic; willpower as mark of strong character.

This sort of argument marks the first phase of the illness, says Ali Borden, primary therapist at the Monte Nido Treatment Center in Calabasas. "When they start in on an eating disorder," says Borden, "they are completely unaware of the effects. They think that they will be thin, loved, successful, popular--which seems to be the stage that the people running the sites are totally locked in. But suddenly they realize: I feel tired, I'm not seeing my friends anymore, I feel weak, I feel sick. But then they think: Well that must mean I'm not working hard enough. I need to work harder."

As they do, they face realities of a body deprived of food. Hair thins. Bones snap. Organs give out.

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