When Lolita Ayvazova, 16, began throwing up her meals three years ago, she didn’t see it as a problem. “It scared me, it still does, but I didn’t consider myself to have an eating disorder because I felt healthy and very normal compared to a lot of people I read about,” she said. “I recognized that it was an eating disorder about a year ago when I started starving myself. That’s when I began to feel like a corpse.”
For both better and worse, Ayvazova is not alone. Men and women across the world are constantly affected by similar disorders. According to The Academy for Eating Disorders, at any give time, 10 percent of adolescent girls and adult women have symptoms of these eating disorders. To outsiders, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa can seem egotistical and shallow, but from the inside, it is quite different. The idea that shedding a few pounds can lead to a happy, problem-free life makes developing these bad habits seem like the thing to do.[dead]
“She starts to lose weight, frequently setting a goal that is not unreasonable,” said Kelly Klump, president of The Academy for Eating Disorders and associate professor at MSU. “When she gets there, it isn’t enough, so she sets a goal to lose more weight and wants to go lower and lower…to the point where when the individual wants to stop, it becomes incredibly difficult to do so.”
This difficulty may come from the eventual root of the eating disorder. The disease ends up being a lot more about control than it is about weight – food intake being the only thing in their lives they feel they have control over. But in reality, it isn’t so. “The disorder takes on a life of its own. In the beginning they are very much in control, but over time, they feel the eating disorder (ED) controls them,” Klump said.
Ronda Bokram, a nutritionist at Olin Health Center and an active participant in health education, is well aware of the control aspect of the disease. “It’s not about looking skinny. It’s about continued having control, or feeling like they have control,” she said. “They want to be able to continue in their behavior, they want people to not pay attention to them. It’s never really about food, or even about the weight at a certain point. It becomes their identities.” However the ED began, it becomes too much to handle. The person dealing with it can only keep pushing to keep losing.
In order to lose the weight, people can strictly ration their calorie intake each day, work out for hours, and a lot of times, try not to eat at all. With bulimia, they practice a binge and purge cycle, eating everything in sight only to vomit it out a few moments later. There are countless fad diets circulating the Web, as well as rumors and miracle products that those with EDs try to use to their advantage. Dr. David Novicki, a professor and counselor at MSU, is very familiar with the tactics. “They’re thinking, no muscle mass, no fat mass. What they don’t realize is that when the body runs out of fat and calories, it starts eating muscle,” he said. “The body will eventually consume itself, leading to death.” When left untreated, the diseases are known to be fatal. A dangerously low body fat content can also lead to a loss of menstruation, which in turn can leave to sterilization. Unfortunately, these are just a few of the side effects of anorexia and bulimia. The physical manifestations of EDs are clear and inevitable, but emotional trauma and transformation can be much more difficult to understand.
[whatisthat]”I’m really depressed and lonely and nothing matters to me in the world except losing weight,” Ayvazova said. “I think if I reach my [goal weight] my insecurities might fade away and I’ll start to do the things I want to do. I think if I was really thin, my friends and family would love and respect me more.” Through her comments and explanations, the mentality of EDs became a little clearer. “I see myself as a BIIIIG mess. I have so many flaws and my body is disgusting and I don’t think I deserve to eat,” she said. “I don’t do the things regular teens do. I can’t play sports because I faint a lot, I don’t go to dances because I’m insecure, I don’t go out to lunch with my friends because I have a food schedule. I can’t do anything.”
This view from the inside can be bleak and scary to face alone. Answering a human desire for companionship, many of these young girls frequent controversial “Pro-Ana” or “Pro-Mia” Web sites. Never heard of them? Not many have. Novicki is familiar with the Web sites and their many harmful effects. “The majority of the Pro-Ana Web sites support anorexic-type behavior by providing what they call ‘thinspiration’ and basically suggesting things that lead to a very unhealthy lifestyle,” he said. In practice, these Web sites are conglomerations of pictures, poems, songs and recipes, all intended to motivate young girls to keep up the “good work.” Visitors have to read and agree to a disclaimer before entering the site.
The most interesting and important aspect of these Web sites is the forum. With a screen-name, the girls post updates on their situations: how many calories they’ve eaten, day-by-day weight fluctuations and reactions from their friends and families. It’s a giant community with girls from all over the world; the thing they have in common is a life-ruining psychological disease. “With blogging and all of that, anyone can just have [a Pro-Ana Web site],” Bokram said. “It’s a pretty scary thing. You don’t want people to connect on that level.” When they do, they don’t just get support, they get a little bit of competition, too. When the users document their calorie intakes for the day, others take it as a challenge. “Can I beat that?” “I’m going to eat less than her.” This mentality can be magnified in a community and the disease can be seen as a sort of race.[doc]
The “thinspiration” on the Web sites can be particularly uncomfortable. Pictures of tall, impossibly thin girls stare back from the computer screen, sometimes smiling, sometimes crying – accurately displaying the exaggerated ups and downs of a lifestyle plagued with an ED. The way these girls use their “thinspiration” can be as different as the pictures themselves. “I think that varies for each person,” Klump said. “Some are going on there to see a super-skinny woman and set a goal to look like that woman, or skinnier than that person. I think what a person will take from those images depends on where they are in their illness, beginning, middle or in recovery.”
The girls who frequent these Web sites have a different outlook than the professionals. “The people I’ve met [there] are incredible,” Ayvazova said. “Personally, for me it’s a place where I can comfortably express myself and ask questions without being judged. I’ve met 12-year-old girls, teens, married women and a few guys as well. Everyone has a different story.”
Kelley Bates, 17, has made a full recovery from her EDs. “I definitely had an eating disorder; anorexia and bulimia for three years,” she said. “I went to a treatment center after graduating high school early.” She also visited the Web sites for support in the midst of her illness. “That community just really appealed to me then; I felt like I was actually sane, when in reality, we were all just equally crazy. I would visit these Web sites whenever I wanted justification for what I was doing; I wanted people to tell me what I wanted to hear. Since my family, friends, and teachers were constantly on my case about how much I was eating, I wanted to find people that would tell me that eating less than 500 calories a day was okay.”
Bates looked at the sites as helpful then, but has since had a serious change of heart. “Looking back on my visits to the Pro-Ana sites, it literally makes me feel sick,” she said. “It’s such a destructive community; the epitome of evil. If motivating people to continue to slowly kill themselves isn’t the work of the devil, then I don’t know what is.” From her first-hand experience, the Web sites promote highly destructive habits.
But not all users believe they encourage disordered eating habits. “These sites are popular because many of us are looking for the same thing and that is someone to talk to and gain support,” Ayvazova said. “Pro-Ana/Mia Web sites don’t encourage you to starve yourself or any of that nonsense. Suppressing your thoughts is frustrating and Pro-Ana communities allow you to pour your heart out to hundreds of strangers who care to listen and help you.” Ayvazova clearly believes in the positive support that can be gained from the communities.
Some professionals may even agree with Ayvazova. “Some of the Web sites can provide support for recovery, so there could be some supportive piece of the Web sites,” Klump said. “But the benefits of the communities do not outweigh the costs.” Although they may be slightly beneficial, or at least have the potential to be, it seems they cause more harm than good.
[bates]Although these sites are obviously aimed at those already dealing with an ED, is it possible that they will have a negative effect on those without an ED? Klump is adamant that just glancing at one of these sites isn’t going to make you put down your fork. “It wouldn’t cause an eating disorder,” she said. “Visiting one of the Web sites could be one of many factors leading to development of an ED. They have a significant genetic basis. The heritability is as high as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder…all of these risk factors in combo will increase your chances of developing one.” It is clear that if people are vulnerable to disordered eating, they should not visit one of these Web sites, and people with normal eating habits may walk away from a browse saddened and with a bit of body dissatisfaction, although they will not develop an ED overnight.
What is the future of girls like Ayvazova, on- or offline? As difficult as it may seem, recovery is possible, and Bates is the portrait of success. She recognizes, however, that it took a complete change in mindset. “I remember lying awake one night at [the recovery center], just praying that I would see myself in the mirror how I truly looked,” she said. “A couple of days later, I wore a purple shirt that I had worn the week before that I thought made me look obese. As I put the shirt on and looked in the mirror, I saw the most beautiful reflection staring back at me. It was really bizarre.” It wasn’t all luck and prayers. Bates said getting over her ED was the hardest thing she has ever had to do.
With recovery behind her, Bates is passionate about spreading the word about EDs and the harmful effects of Pro-Ana Web sites. She is actively sharing her story and encouraging girls she knew to get help, as well as discouraging the Web sites at every opportunity. She created a Web site to do just that. “I’ve only had this Web site available for a couple of weeks and the response has been incredible,” she said. “It’s so rewarding when someone tells me that my Web site motivated them to go to treatment, helped them to recognize that they or a friend have a problem or inspired them to feel better about themselves.”[pinthin]
Bates is not the only one that feels this way about Pro-Ana Web sites – so why do they still exist? Of course, the right to print what you want is constitutionally protected, and the Internet provides a penetrating new vehicle to get whatever you want out there. So what, if anything, can be done about Pro-Ana Web sites? “The Academy for Eating Disorders is the largest organization of ED professionals in the world,” Klump said. “Several years ago, we petitioned several Web sites to take them down, and they did.” But they aren’t just interested in removing them; they really want to change their content. “Ideally, we would partner with the individuals who host them to get them to remove negative material,” Klump said.
The controversy surrounding these Pro-Ana Web sites seems never ending. Some people rely on them, while others find them hugely harmful. Whatever your view, the Web sites are just a small issue when considering the larger problem of eating disorders and their prevalence. As impossible as they are to understand, attention is sorely needed. Just look at the girls they affect. “I cannot even imagine myself at 22 years old,” Ayvazova said. “Hopefully alive, well and thinner.”