If you want to talk about a touchy subject, bring up the term “anorexia” and eyebrows will quickly raise and the room will become uncomfortably quiet. The reality is, there’s a relatively high chance that someone you know has either privately or publicly struggled with an eating disorder. Because so many remain private in their dealings with disorders like anorexia, pro-anorexia or ‘pro-ana websites‘ that provide resources and support – two terms used loosely and subjectively in this context – have become a big presence online, and a big problem from a mental health standpoint.
Bailey, 29 (who wished to leave her last name anonymous), became anorexic when she was 17, but had always struggled with self image growing up. Though she was never overweight, she felt uncomfortable in her athletic body so she started to severely restrict her diet. Bailey’s 5 foot 6 frame shrunk from 135 pounds to 105 pounds, whittling her hourglass shape to one that she describes as looking “very sick.”
Knowing she needed help after nearly skimming 100 pounds, Bailey sought treatment, which ultimately turned out to be a disappointment. “I found therapy frustrating because it was focused around getting me back up to weight, not why I was doing these things,” she recalls. “I can’t say for sure what healed me, but I believe it was…realizing that I was all I had, so I had to take care of me.”
Now, years later and on the other side of anorexia, Bailey can easily say that pro-anorexia sites do very little good, if any, to actually stem anorexia. “In my opinion, they teach people to be better anorexics – which isn’t a good thing,” she said. What I needed was strengths counseling – a safe arena in which to air my feelings, and support to retrain myself to eat for a healthy life, not an imaginary body.”
As for whether or not she’s fully recovered from anorexia, Bailey said it’s been a process that she thinks may never end. “I still struggle with this at times, and it’s still tough,” she admits. “I don’t think it’s a disease that anyone ever ‘gets over.’ They just have ‘more ordered eating’ than ‘disordered eating.'”
As a recovering anorexic, Bailey believes that people hoping to seek treatment for their disorder must first realize that the emotional component of an eating disorder is the most crucial part, and that no healing will occur until they find the underlying issue of the habit. “The bottom line is that a person needs a trusting therapeutic relationship – just like what the sites say they offer, but don’t.”
DietsInReview.com’s resident mental health expert, Brooke Randolph, LMHC, agrees and was rather put off by the article published by TIME this week that suggests pro-anorexia sites may provide a place for healing for some struggling with eating disorders. In her opinion, the headline alone was just an “inflammatory, misleading attention-grabbing tactic,” and that the hypothesis suggested was never actually addressed.
“No, pro-ana websites will not heal eating disorders. Anyone who has taken an undergrad intro to groups or group dynamics course understands that there is a feeling of relief when finding others in a similar situation,” said Randolph. “While that is similar to the experience in a support group, there is no support for healing discussed in this article or in any of the few pro-ana sites I have come across.”
Overall, Randolph finds many dangers in pro-ana websites, saying they can be a trigger or teach new, often dangerous techniques that are much more harmful than any removal of feelings of isolation that could be experienced.
“Those who are truly looking for recovery will find a greater sense of group understanding from being a part of a healing support group where there are others who understand what they have experienced, what they are experiencing, and the change they want to make in their lives,” she said. “Eating disorders are complicated diagnoses to treat. For many, disordered eating is the way that they are coping with other pain or trauma, thus you have to treat the root issue while ensuring that disordered eating does not create real health crises.”
Depending on the particular situation, Randolph recommends that a team of professionals including therapists, psychiatrists, medical professionals and case managers may be needed to treat a person struggling with disordered eating. She also added that it’s often important for the entire family to be involved as well.
Whatever the solution may be for someone dealing with an eating disorder, the main thing is to seek help and know that you’re not alone. Remaining isolated and keeping your struggles as your own may only lead to further destructive habits.