There is a whole language around eating disorders that sounds like Greek to a lot of us:
Pro-ana – website that promotes anorexia
Pro-mia – website that promotes bulimia
Thinspiration / Thinspo – images to inspire weight loss
Fitspiration / Fitspo – images to inspire exercise / body building
In this post we’re going to consider pro-ana and pro-mia sites, who uses them, why they’re dangerous and what parents and schools can do to decrease they’re impact on the young people in their care.
What are pro-ana and pro-mia sites?
Pro-ana and pro-mia sites are websites that promote anorexic and bulimic lifestyles. Set up by people with eating disorders looking to validate their illness and seeking suppo
rt to continue with their eating disorder from fellow sufferers these sites vary hugely in their precise content. They are often a forum for people to exchange pictures and weight loss or purging tips and to encourage one another’s weight loss.
Who uses pro-ana and pro-mia sites?
These sites are often a refuge for people suffering from eating disorders. It’s common for sufferers to feel quite isolated having pushed away their family and friends preferring to seek out like-minded individuals online. There are over 500 such sites and the latest studies predict that they attract more than 500,000 unique visitors a year of which the majority are teenage girls and one in five are aged between six and eleven.
Why are they dangerous?
These sites are dangerous because they encourage the users to embrace eating disorders – seeing them as a lifestyle choice rather than the serious mental health condition which they actually are. The sites share tips and tricks designed to exacerbate eating disorders and there is often a support network which will encourage people to consume ever fewer calories, or purge longer and harder. With most things in life, if you have a good teacher and a good support network then your skills in and dedication to a particular topic will increase more quickly and this is true also of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa whose onset can be expedited and exacerbated by pro-ana and pro-mia sites. The sites also make recovery far harder as they contradict anything a young person may be told about the benefits of recovery and the downsides of eating disorders.
Highlight alternative sources of information
Many young people come across these sites as they have body image issues or the early symptoms of an eating disorder and are looking for more information or support, coming across a pro-ana site can catapault them into a terrifying new world where their eating disorder may rapidly develop even if they don’t intend for that to happen. As such, it’s important that we make it clear to young people where there are trusted sources of information and support about eating disorders – such as the Beat website and helpline (0845 634 7650). Also let them know that you’re always happy to talk to them about concerns of this type.
Teach young people that eating disorders are serious mental health conditions
Ensure that young people understand that eating disorders are serious mental health conditions and not lifestyle choices as suggested by many pro-ana and pro-mia sites. Young people need to know that eating disorders can be fatal – anorexia nervosa being the most lethal of all mental health conditions with 10% of sufferers dying from complications of the illness or suicide.
Encourage young people to share their concerns about their friends
Often, friends can be the first to pick up the early warning signs of eating disorders – or may know that a friend is actively using pro-ana or pro-mia sites (though they are likely to refer to them in quite a different way). Explain to students who they should talk to if they’re concerned, why it’s important and what’s likely to happen next. Teach students that a good friend is one who supports and looks out for a friend when they’re in need and that by alerting a teacher or parent to the early signs of an eating disorder they could be saving their friend’s life – even if their friend might be angry in the short-term.
Act on your concerns
If you suspect that a young person is using these sites then it’s vital that you intervene. Talk openly to the young person and allow them to share any concerns they currently have with you. You need to listen and ask plenty of open questions and be prepared to act on what you find out – this might mean referring the student to the lead teacher at school or the school counselor. If you’re a parent it might mean talking to the school or visiting your GP. But take some action and make sure the young person feels supported and cared for – and try to discourage them from using pro-ana sites, but be aware that cutting them off cold turkey or removing all of their internet access is likely to be counter-productive. Instead take a controlled, respectful approach, discussing with the young person concerned why such sites are a bad idea and agreeing restrictions on their use until they can be weaned off or find a more acceptable alternative.