Pro-ana or pro-anorexia websites refer to online message boards, communities, blogs, and other resources that encourage disordered eating. Many times, these sites promote harmful behaviors by emphasizing thinness, restriction, and compensatory behaviors. People who participate in these communities reinforce that you don’t need treatment for struggling with an eating disorder; instead, they claim that you are better off staying sick.
What Is Pro-Ana?
Pro-ana is a slang term that essentially encapsulates positivity towards anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders. People who believe the pro-ana mindset believe that eating disorders can be a chosen lifestyle. They assume that thinness correlates with perfection, love, and happiness. And often assume that they have control over their behavior. They don’t necessarily see their decisions as life-threatening and may praise themselves for having restraint.
Pro-ana content varies based on the audience, but it may consist of harmful dieting tips, laxative abuse information, compulsive exercise, and exhibiting hatred towards one’s body. Many users will label this content as “thinspo,” and it can entail creative expression (poetry, essays, photos) meant to encourage choosing weight loss.1
Why Is Pro-Ana Dangerous?
This content may also constitute other life-threatening behaviors like hiding your disorder from loved ones or lying to your treatment team about your progress. Pro-ana can also correlate with issues related to self-harm or suicide, as many people who believe in the pro-ana mentality glamorize other forms of emotional distress.
You can find pro-ana content on message boards, personal blogs, social media platforms, and other online communities where like-minded individuals convene. In some cases, individuals specifically label the content as “triggering” to warn potential users about what to expect.
Symptoms of Eating Disorders
Symptoms of eating disorders include having an obsession with food, skipping meals, noticeable weight fluctuations, and keeping specific food rituals. Keep in mind that having symptoms does not necessarily indicate the presence of an eating disorder. Individuals present several issues at the same time. Likewise, the severity of symptoms interferes with everyday functioning and emotional well-being.
Symptoms of eating disorders include:5
- Extreme and worsening preoccupation with body size, shape, and weight loss
- Obsession with food and fad diets
- Skipping meals or eating overly small or large portions
- Adopting specific food rituals that are not medically necessary
- Ongoing concern with counting calories, macronutrients, or other metrics
- Noticeable fluctuations in size or weight
- Missing a period or only being able to menstruate on oral contraceptives
- Experiencing gastrointestinal distress or other stomach problems
- Low levels of iron, blood pressure, blood sugar, and other vital metrics
- Sleep problems
- Dental issues with cavities, tooth pains, or enamel erosion
- Fine hair on the body
- Evidence of vomiting, laxative abuse, diet pills
- An ongoing obsession with “clean eating”
- Exercising compulsively and beyond normal limits
Eating Disorders & Social Media
Eating disorder culture has always been toxic, but the link between social media and eating disorders is especially concerning. Social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube make it easy to share pro-ana content to millions of people instantaneously. Users can share restrictive diet plans, “thinspirational” images, toxic quotes about starvation or thinness, and edit their photos to share a distorted goal.2
Pro-ana websites discuss and encourage disordered eating through images, persuasive speech, and a codependent sense of community closeness. While the exact number of pro-ana resources is unknown, there may be upwards of hundreds of sites that fall within this category.
Pro-ana content may consist of:3
- Dangerous tips for coping with hunger
- Contents of near-starvation daily meal plans
- Images of celebrities or other influencers who have their ideal bodies
- Descriptions of other mental health concerns like self-harm or suicidal ideation
- Tips for other weight-loss strategies (diet pills, laxatives, drugs, vomiting)
- Suggestions for hiding or downplaying behaviors from others
Unlike recovery-based materials, pro-ana websites reinforce behaviors associated with mental illness. In many cases, they glamorize the eating disorder lifestyle. While many website owners seek to moderate content and remove triggering material, it’s impossible to erase the pro-ana mentality entirely.
Pro-Ana Social Media
Research shows that teenagers spend up to nine hours a day online.4 This constant exposure can have a tremendous impact on their self-esteem, emotional health, and quality of interpersonal relationships. Unfortunately, despite community guidelines, it’s easy to find pro-ana content online.
Some platforms work hard to remove triggering hashtags or redirect users to specific resources; however, the more the platforms try to crack down on pro-ana content, the more creative users become in circumventing the rules.
Pro-ana social media influencers and users may swap dieting tips, post their goal weights and progress towards these unachievable numbers, and attempt to “keep each other accountable” in calorie restricting, exercising, or otherwise engaging in disordered behavior.
Pro-Ana Foods & Diets
Pro-ana diets consist of minimal quantities and types of food. Plans might require users to eat fewer than a designated number of calories each day. They endorse drastic approaches such as cutting out entire food groups, fasting, or consuming only liquids. Despite the type of food or diet, the message is clear: eat as little as possible and restrain yourself if tempted. If you “cave,” pro-ana labels you as weak.
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Harmful Impact of Pro-Ana & Pro-Mia Sites
These sites do not have any positive benefits. First, pro-ana and pro-mia (mia as in bulimia nervosa) content can be undoubtedly detrimental for vulnerable individuals struggling with eating disorders or eating disorder recovery. Moreover, such content also can impact people struggling with body dysmorphia, depression, anxiety disorders, low self-esteem, or other mental health issues.
While eating disorders often manifest from different causes, this content may trigger or exacerbate problematic behavior. People can be incredibly impressionable, and pro-ana social media provides a sense of belonging and kinship, and they may find it within these toxic communities.
Pro-ana and pro-mia sites can cause problems with:
- Self-esteem or concept of self-worth
- Body image
- Existing eating disorder symptoms
- Physical well-being, particularly as it relates to weight loss, vomiting, or compulsive exercise
- Real-life relationships
- Concentration and focus (spending more time on these sites may take away time or energy spent on school, work, or other hobbies)
- Suicidal thoughts
When to Get Help for Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are often insidious and notoriously difficult to treat. People may experience immense shame and take great lengths to conceal their habits in front of loved ones. Subsequently, they often fear the possibility of recovery and weight gain, making intervention more difficult.
Eating disorders often worsen progressively, so early prevention and treatment can make a tremendous difference in aiding recovery. As a first step, if you are already meeting with a therapist, it’s beneficial to discuss any problematic behaviors with them directly. Even if this disclosure feels scary, it’s their job to listen and support you.
You should also contact your primary care physician (PCP) for a medical evaluation. Anorexia and bulimia nervosa can impact every part of the body, so your doctor can review your symptoms, provide an accurate diagnosis, and discuss the best treatment options.
Effective eating disorder treatment tends to be multidisciplinary. Your treatment team may consist of various professionals, including a PCP, therapist, registered dietitian, case manager, and psychiatrist.
How to Find a Therapist
Good therapy can be one of the most influential components of your recovery. When it comes to knowing how to choose a therapist, make sure to look for someone with experience.
Here are things to look for in a therapist:
- Has experience and specialty in working with eating disorders
- Understands working within a multidisciplinary framework
- Embraces concepts rooted in body positivity and anti-diet culture
- Helps you feel safe, supported, and understood
- Recognizes how eating disorders affect the entire family unit (especially if you are an adolescent or teenager)
Even once you find the right fit, it can still take time to build a meaningful relationship with your therapist. It’s crucial to be honest and forthcoming during your work. The more you allow yourself to open up, the greater your chances for healing.
Some therapists recommend family therapy or group therapy in addition to individual work. Family therapy empowers each family member to recognize their part within the system. Group therapy offers a safe and supportive environment for you to learn new skills with others.
Final Thoughts on Pro-Ana Websites
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, it’s essential to reach out for support. You don’t have to suffer in silence or turn to harmful pro-ana communities for a toxic sense of support. Speaking to a trusted loved one or a qualified professional can make all the difference in improving your physical and mental health.