Bathing suit season is upon us, and more people are hitting the gym and starting new diets trying to shed unwanted pounds.
But for millions of Internet-savvy teens, a dangerous alternative is just a click away -- countless Web sites that glorify, promote and teach that eating disorders aren't a disease, but a "lifestyle choice." This, despite the fact that eating disorders are one of the most deadly mental illness in the country.
Annie Hayashi, spokesperson for the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), says that 6 percent of people with eating disorders will eventually die from the disease. "We believe that the pro-eating disorder sites are not only destructive but dangerous," said Hayashi. "They give legitimacy to people who can't recover and are triggering for people who are trying to recover."
There are about 500 Web sites that offer tips on how to become anorexic or bulimic. The popularity of what are known as "pro-ana" (pro-anorexia) and "pro-mia" (pro-bulimia) Web sites has increased in recent years. They attract mostly teenage girls and young women, often getting thousands of hits a day.
Most Web sites are run by self-proclaimed "rexies" -- individuals who celebrate their eating disorders. Some even call it a religion, reciting psalms and offering prayers to their goddess "Ana." Many of the sites feature "thinspirational" photos, which depict the skin-and-bones of emaciated models and celebrities.
On one site, www.ceruleanbutterfly.com, the philosophy is frighteningly blunt: "One day I will be thin enough. Just the bones, no disfiguring flesh. Just the pure clean shape of me, bones. That is what we all are, what we're made up of and everything else is just storage, deposit, waste."
Most of the Web sites give tips on the most effective way to starve oneself. One site recommends "taking antacids" to "help reduce hunger pains" and constantly drinking coffee, diet soda and chewing gum so "you won't feel hungry." Other tips from similar sites -- get manicures to hide your split and broken nails, shower in cold water to burn calories, and wear multiple layers of clothing to hide your weight loss.
Trying to Shut Down Sites
Experts say these so-called "pro-ed" (pro-eating disorder) Web sites are potentially deadly, particularly because they rationalize and affirm the very behavior that defines the disease. They also package their message in alluring colors, music and designs that attract young girls.
According to Hayashi, "11-, 12-, and 13-year-old girls see and visit these sites and emulate the behavior." She points out that pre-adolescence is a challenging and confusing time, and teenagers can easily fall prey to the obsessions of this self-destructive and tightly-knit community, resulting in sometimes tragic consequences.
"They have an emotional predisposition...and are already feeling isolated, with low self-esteem," Hayashi said.
In order to shut down the dangerous Internet forums, Hayashi says ANAD spends a lot of time searching the Internet, identifying pro-eating disorder sites, then contacting and informing the web servers. Hayashi explains that the only way to get these dangerous sites off the Web is to notify the web servers, which can shut them down for violating the terms and conditions of their Internet agreement.
Another strategy ANAD uses is to report that the various sites contain pornographic images of half-clothed and emaciated young girls, many of whom are underage. While servers such as Yahoo, Lycos and MySpace have been particularly responsive to removing pro-ana and pro-mia Web sites, according to Hayashi, some sites have refused to cooperate with ANAD's requests, citing First Amendment arguments.
Advocacy sites like ANAD offer tips for parents to recognize the early-warning signs of eating disorders. Among them: a sudden interest in calorie counting, wearing baggy clothing, excessive caffeine consumption, fanatical exercise and a general obsession with weight. These groups urge parents to monitor their children's Internet activity, and keep a watchful eye out for pro-ana an pro-mia sites.
As Hayashi say, parents' vigilance could be a matter of life and death. "The danger of these sites is the sense of community and support they provide. A community some know will mourn them when, not if, they die."
For more information on eating disorders, visit the following Web sites:
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) -- www.anad.org
National Eating Disorders Association -- www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
Academy for Eating Disorders -- www.aedweb.org