With eating disorders remaining a consistent problem amongst the student demographic, Leanne Waters is shocked by what she discovers as she visits extreme internet sites purporting to help those struggling with such disorders

In the 1970s, Karen Carpenter took the world by storm when she formed the hit duo The Carpenters with her brother Richard. Her vocal performances silenced audiences across America and engraved the star’s name in music history forever. An emotive entertainer of incredible vocal ability, Karen’s legacy has transcended generation after generation. To this day, her music and career remain ultimately timeless. On February 4th 1983, Karen Carpenter died from heart failure, later attributed to complications related to her long-term battle with anorexia nervosa. She was 32 years old.

Nowadays, anorexia is a much publicised illness, along with many other complex eating disorders, including bulimia nervosa. In contrast to the somewhat deficient medical knowledge of Karen Carpenter’s time, awareness of such disorders today is ever-growing. But with the fast-paced workings of contemporary western society, it also seems that dangers are forever lurking.

On this note, allow me to thus introduce the stars of our discussion: Ana, Mia and Ed – three veterans of our beloved worldwide web. Though seemingly innocent, these three names delicately curtain an entire world of emotional, psychological and physical depravity. As it is only common courtesy to give one’s full title upon any first introduction, allow me to explain. In all their glory, these three characters are personified acronyms, standing for Anorexia, Bulimia and (more generally) Eating Disorders. Together, they accommodate the now densely-populated ring of pro-ED websites that deeply infect the veins of today’s internet.

Such websites act as advocates to the aforementioned diseases and more; promoting eating disorders as a lifestyle and not as illnesses. Far from even merely condoning the behaviours of anorexics and bulimics, the sites encourage these alarming endeavours through a variety of blogs and categories. In my own quest to discover more about this rather darkly ambiguous topic, I delved deep into one such site, presenting myself as a novice to the underground universe of pro-Ana. My eerie findings were nothing less than haunting and utterly menacing to the core.

Among the many facets to peruse, one can easily see the popularity found in one noted section entitled ‘Tips & Tricks’ – dedicated purely to assist any site member struggling with their chosen “lifestyle”. One member writes: “I need some help with hiding this from my mom and everyone at home… Do you have good tips/tricks to hiding skipped meals from parents?” The responses that follow are, quite simply, harrowing and overwhelming. Along with advice regarding how to lie effectively, members enthusiastically provide pointers on matters such as suppressing hunger pains and “purging” (vomiting).

Horrified at the contents of the screen before me, and yet still unable to look away, it starts to become very clear that the majority of users on this site are female and all relatively young. Most fall between the ages of about 16 to 35 and come from all corners of the world and all walks of life. The secrecy of their disease and the very evident extent of their disorders is profound, with many leading perfectly normal lives and even raising children of their own. Despite the façades they maintain, however, the site is plagued with blogs and entries full to the brim of guilt, shame and relentless desolation.

Aged 39, one blogger writes: “I did so well and got down to 87 lbs [approximately six stone]. My goal weight is 80. But now I keep slipping up and I know, even before I eat, what I’m doing and know the outcome yet still do it regardless… Am I totally dumb? And I’m back up to a massive 94 lbs. I’m just getting fatter. I’m really fed up; the depression is really starting to kick in and then I want to eat and I’m irritable all the time.

“I’m also starting to wonder about something: I was diagnosed as Ana and have always believed it, but am wondering now if I have Mia tendencies? Although, I don’t purge or even binge as such; in fact I think what I call binging isn’t even what ‘normal’ people eat. But I’m scared, scared that I’m not Ana and that I’m ‘normal’. That really does frighten me, which is so dumb and I just don’t understand myself at all. Why the hell would I feel like that? Shouldn’t I want to be ‘normal’?”

Mental illnesses such as Depression, Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are all strongly linked to eating disorders. The deeper a victim falls into the disorder, the more susceptible that person becomes to a vast range of other mental health struggles. It becomes clear, from reading entry after endless entry, that many of the site’s users can all testify to this, and that most are also dealing with many, now far-reaching, problems as a result of their apparent lifestyle. More than anything among the fevered blogs, there seems to be a recurring theme of dangerously low levels of self-worth and a very definite sense of feeling lost.

Another, rather young, pro-ED junkie comments: “I don’t know what I’m doing half the time, my concentration is almost zero. Even my brains have stopped working properly. I can’t even concentrate on a conversation anymore. I’m just lost with it all. I really, really am. And I’m not just a down, lost and stupid idiot but I’m a f*****g FAT, down, lost and stupid idiot!”

And yet even with the overwhelming bombardment of bleak – and often suicidal – blog entries, the website seems to attempt a ridiculous air of light-heartedness. Not far from such melancholy thoughts and feelings, we stumble upon sub-categories that are just bursting with “oodles of thinspo [thin inspiration]!”. And so begins the sickening journey through picture after picture of Size Zero celebrities and emaciated “model” bodies. Favourites include celebrities such as Mischa Barton, Nicole Richie, Lindsey Lohan and even our lovely Karen Carpenter. Evidently, it is through the use of such teen icons that emaciation has been glamorized to look attractive and desirable. Moreover, in imitation of this, the site outlets a Show Yourself section, which proves to be just as fruitful with its images of skeletal girls and women, shadows of the people they probably once were.

It is clear that there is a tremendously strong sense of support felt for the ‘Ana’ and ‘Mia’ of others, with members chatting freely and constantly encouraging one another. But among the superficial niceties of “Wow, you look so beautiful and skinny” and “I wish my legs looked like yours”, there also lies pressure and malice. Though my finger hovers for a time over the mouse, eventually even I succumb to clicking into the section entitled Competition. Dedicated to providing “enthusiasm and motivation”, competitions involve teams of the online members who battle it out for the glory of being seen as most disciplined. From weight-loss competitions to prolonged fasts and extensive exercise, the duelling teams – ‘Fading Obsession’ and ‘Addicted to Ana’ are both determined and ruthless.

In the spirit of these ‘motivational’ facilities, I am once again struck with one particular blog entry. As a source of encouragement, one Ana-dedicated woman goes on to provide ‘57 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Eat’. Responded to with tremendous gratitude and thanks from other members, the post includes outrageous arguments such as the following: “09. Starving is an example of excellent willpower … 33. You will be able to see your beautiful bones … 35. Bones are clean and pure. Fat is dirty and hangs on your bones like a parasite … 40. When you start to get dizzy and feel weak, you’re almost there … 53. People who eat are selfish and unrealistic.”

When reading such aggressive words as above, it becomes all too incredibly easy to condemn the author – and indeed, many of those who participate in such destructive websites. However, the judging public must always keep in mind is the severity of such illnesses. Pro-Ana websites are not always established necessarily to harm people, but rather, have been created by sufferers themselves. A distorted attempt to reach out, creators are often looking for support from other sufferers but instead succeed in creating an outlet for the disease itself.

Even with famous deaths such as that of Karen Carpenter, eating disorders are as real as they have ever been. And with the progression of such illnesses to the internet, they’re fast becoming even more dangerous. As monitoring the hundreds of thousands of sites dedicated to this horrid cause is near impossible, it is the caution of internet-users that is now being challenged. But still, the great fear remains: without the awareness of such horrifically dangerous sites being constantly emphasized, this “fading obsession” may haunt our web for some time to come.