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The Pro-Ana Movement: Lifestyle or Deathstyle?

“Nothing tastes as good as thin feels.”
“Hunger hurts, but starving works.”
“The difference between want and need is self-control.”
“Without food I am beautiful. Without food I am perfect.”

Welcome to the Pro-Ana movement, an underground cyberworld full of “thinspiration” –motivational tactics for extreme weight loss behaviors – targeting individuals in the depths of anorexia nervosa.

Websites compiling photographs of skeletal bodies, strategies for hiding disordered behaviors from loved ones, tips for tolerating extreme levels of hunger, and height/weight statistics of underweight celebrities are nothing new to the internet. However, the explosion of social media has allowed these sites to morph into interactive forums that foster support for individuals to continue lethal behaviors.

Given the psychological profile of an individual who is struggling with anorexia nervosa, the attractiveness of these sites – both for those who create them and for those who view them – makes perfect sense. Let’s consider the functions that such sites play for both groups in an effort to understand why such dangerous materials are alluring to this population.

For creators of these websites, the Pro-Ana movement serves as an expanded forum in which to have their “voice” heard. Many individuals who develop anorexia have grown up in families in which their thoughts, feelings, and desires were ignored, invalidated, or criticized. Expressing sadness in words was unacceptable; crying was a sign of weakness.

Thus, these young people often feel as though the only way to communicate their internal struggle is to make it external and visible – essentially, dieting until they appear as sick as they feel. The body and behaviors become the voice, and the message is delivered effectively. Clearly, the Pro-Ana websites become a useful tool for projecting that voice to a wider audience.

For consumers of these materials, the Pro-Ana world provides a kind of social support for which those who struggle with anorexia are desperate. Because most social activities in our society do involve food, these individuals often isolate and turn down opportunities to build and foster relationships.

Additionally, the pathological behaviors and beliefs around food practiced by those with anorexia can create feelings of shame and loneliness. Reading and seeing that others are engaging in similar experiences can create a sense of comfort and belonging, despite the destructive nature of this common ground.

Despite the fact that participation in the Pro-Ana movement can fulfill these aforementioned needs for individuals struggling with anorexia, it is clear that these websites are doing more harm than good.

Many of the younger clients with whom I have worked tell me that they utilized these domains to become “better anorexics”. Unlike many psychiatric disorders from which folks are highly motivated to recover, anorexia nervosa can take on an addictive quality such that success becomes defined by the severity of one’s illness: how much weight is loss, how few calories are consumed, how much exercise is completed.

When the brain is deprived of proper nutrition for an extended period of time, individuals lose touch with reality and with the ability to recognize that they are committing a slow suicide.

Anorexia is not a lifestyle, as some members of the Pro-Ana community will assert. It is a deathstyle.

About Katie Rickel, PhD

Dr. Katie Rickel graduated summa cum laude from Duke University with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Florida. She completed an APA-accredited clinical internship in health psychology at Duke University Medical Center, with advanced training in behavioral and bariatric obesity treatment as well as the psychological management of chronic pain and illness. Dr. Rickel also has expertise in treating anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias. Her research has been presented at various professional conferences and published in scientific journals. Dr. Rickel has also appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” and has been quoted in several popular media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Health magazine, Yahoo! Health, Women’s Health magazine, Weight Watchers magazine, and abcnews.com.

View all posts by Katie Rickel, PhD