Pro-anorexia websites celebrate deadly disease
Anorexia is having a moment. A new Netflix movie called To The Bone humanizes sufferers. The characters in the movie are quirky and lovable and trying so hard to get better.
But there's an even darker side to anorexia: some people like being sick. And they turn to each other to stay that way.
A hidden underworld exists online where anorexics swap tips and secrets on how to cut calories, hide their bingeing from parents and eat the minimum number of calories to avoid headaches and fainting and death.
The people on these forums say they aren't ready to recover — even though the mortality rate for anorexia is the highest of any mental illness. Sickness feeds their soul. And so does the attention from other anorexics.
They post photos of their bodies — their vertebrae, collarbones and ribs sticking out of the skin like the corpse of a deer that died in the desert. "So jealous!" come the comments. To a girl whose hips looks like she just came out of a concentration camp, and whose ribs look like that Ethiopian kid from the 1980s famine, they say, "perfection!"
This is called "thinspo" or "bonespo," which is inspiration to reveal the bone. There's even a more soul-rattling level of darkness called "meanspo," which is where kids bully each other thin, to motivate eat other by calling each other fat. "I'd cringe if I had to watch you eat." "On the bright side, you can use your fat folds to store more food." "Are you scared your lover will drown in your fat rolls?" It's Mean Girls, but with a higher suicide rate.
All feed the desire to stay sick.
Anorexia is a disease experts call Egosyntonic. That's a mental illness that a person doesn't want to cure, because it's in harmony with how they think of themselves. Narcissistic personality disorder is one of them. A man who is a narcissist might have inflated self esteem. That unwarranted self-love gives him the confidence to rise all the way to, say, an NBC TV show and the Oval Office. Narcissism can help.
In the same way, some women see anorexia as a ticket to modeling jobs, boyfriends and social media likes. Anorexia, sickeningly, might actually help them. Because in America, there's only a thin line between the girls on the Pro-Ana websites and the models in the Christian Dior ads and on the arms of musicians. Even though it afflicts both sexes, there are almost no men on the Pro-Ana websites — there's no real social advantages to being a rail-thin dude.
The damage from these Pro-Anorexia websites is serious. "I can’t stress how easy it is to access this information, how specific and well-explained it is," Mia Findlay, who struggled with eating disorders, told BuzzFeed News “[I accessed these sites] three years into my six-year eating disorder and that moment I can pinpoint that my eating disorder went from mild to very, very serious.”
France criminalized these Pro-Ana websites in 2015. There are calls for Australia to do the same. It's unlikely America could follow; free speech laws are strong here. And though Instagram banned hashtags that were pro-ana, teens found ways around them.
Between 1 and 4 percent of women will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Men get the disease, too, but less. Desperate, some are turning to radical treatments. Ketamine — a dissociative drug — was found to treat anorexia. A study published last week shows that the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca can work. "I don’t have any anxiety anymore or depression and I would attribute [this] to ayahuasca," a woman told the researcher, Adele LaFrance. "It just rewires your brain."
For now, anorexia is a disease short on miracle cures. Of anorexics, 4 percent will die in the next 25 years. With pro-ana websites, those deaths are being chronicled and even celebrated — to the bone.