Saturday, May 28, 2005

On "pro-ana" websites

With sinking heart, I've learned why my hits have surged lately. Last week, a study of "pro-anorexia" websites was released:
"Pro-ana" forums...are sprouting throughout the Web, and a new study finds that teens with an eating disorder who visit these sites fare far worse than other young anorexics or bulimics.

According to researchers at Stanford University and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital (LPCH) in Palo Alto, Calif., 40 percent of patients interviewed had visited such sites. Teens with an eating disorder who frequent these sites were hospitalized three times more than nonusers, the researchers said.
Within minutes, legions of Googlers began searching high and low for these sites. Google checked its pockets and found a post I wrote last October, when almost no one was paying attention: "WebMD explores pro-anorexia websites..."

So many have flocked to that post! It's a wonder that they don't bump into each other, or knock out pieces of my template. Are they finding what they really want - the pro-anorexia sites? They don't linger here. I had second thoughts about posting at all:
There's a risk that, by pointing out these sites, I might be showing anorexics a way to stay sick. I hope that risk is outweighed by physicians' need to know about what patients are reading.
We don't know whether mainstream journalists had qualms about reporting on these sites. But based on my Sitemeter, interest in these sites has increased enormously.

Let's be absolutely clear about what these sites are promoting. Complications of eating disorders include cognitive impairments, heart attacks, infertility, osteoporosis, hypotension, and, I repeat, death. Recovery can be arduous, and sometimes recovery is incomplete. These patients suffer. Furthermore, it's blindingly obvious that the illness can present in teens and pre-teens, and that children may wander into (or seek) these sites.

I've since learned that web servers have been eliminating sites that encourage others to starve themselves into a state of emaciation, misery and death. It seems futile to try to suppress any sort of information on the web, but "pro-ana" websites may have more staying power than most. Anorexics often strive for control - control of their drives, control of their bodies, and control of others. It may seem like willfulness, but sometimes there is abject fear behind the facade. The need for control is so strong that coercive measures - like shutting down websites - may not succeed with this illness. (Yes, I said "illness"...not "lifestyle.") For more on anorexia nervosa, try here and here.

Hellbound Alleee is well acquainted with these sites, and has little patience for them:
Don't get me wrong. I think that the Pro-ana girls should write poetry and make websites and start anorectic rock bands and write anorectic cookbooks and decorate anorectic birthday cakes to their hearts' content. If they can't manage to believe they deserve physical, material space and mass in the world, they should at least take up as much material space they can in the form of bandwidth. Perhaps some of it will rub off.
She doesn't try to talk them out of it. But she tells those who wish to make themselves disappear: You deserve to take up space in the world! She concludes with an exhortation to enjoy life's pleasures, which include food. She even adds her favorite chili recipe, for inspiration (it calls for corn, potatoes, bacon, steak, Italian sausages, kidney beans, and tomato paste). Bon appetit! It's a message that many anorexics will reject outright. For a host of complex reasons, they believe that to be perfectly in control, they must - nearly - disappear. Their websites, most likely, will not.
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