Wasting away online . . .


Thinspiration blogs and pro-anorexia, or “pro-ana”, sites encourage young men and women to lose weight unnecessarily. These blogs are mostly designed in a scrapbook-like way and often feature entries of song lyrics, poetry and pictures showing girls with visibly protruding bones as well as numerous entries on losing weight.

During my exploration of this online subculture, I found many blog entries from anorexia sufferers. The unhealthy body images that so many women/men have are fed by others who encourage even further weight loss for people who already find themselves in this torturous eating disorder.

Here are some entries s gathered on some of these pro-ana sites:

  • “I hate myself. For being how I am. For being so helpless. For not being able to find help. For being too depressed to try. For wanting to die.”
  • “I just feel like everything would look better on me if I were skinnier.”
  • “I like images that show skinny, happy girls . . . They look so confident and we can see their bones through their skin. It's the most beautiful thing ever. I also like tips about food or how to ignore hunger. I can’t look at my naked reflection without feeling disgusted and wanting to throw up."

As shocking as it is, this kind of attitude is all too common among those suffering from anorexia. Young people who suffer from eating disorders often feel isolated and insecure. Having these blogs allows them to relate to others suffering from the same condition and provides some sort of community for them. However, instead of discouraging dangerous and unhealthy behaviour, these communities tend to promote it. It’s like the anti-lifeline feeding the disorder.

Sandton-based clinical psychologist, Natalie Robbs warns against these pro-ana sites, saying, “With the latest social media and blogging trends, many teenagers suffering from anorexia collude with one another, sharing ideas and strategies to thwart others’ attempts to help them.” What they don’t realise, she says, is that “the choices they think they are making to express themselves, their individualism and their autonomy, will have far-reaching repercussions that could lead to a lifelong struggle with the illness”.

Our society’s obsession with losing weight and being unrealistically thin adds to the pressure, says Dr Robbs. “Compounding this is peer pressure to conform to these expectations in order to fit in and be a part of the ‘in’ or cool crowd.”

“On a daily basis, we are bombarded by media that emphasises body appearance, through images of excessively thin people (usually models) who are portrayed as the ideal to aspire to, or reports of famous people criticised for gaining a few kilograms, or displays of sportswomen and men whose success is often dependent on achieving extremely low body fat percentages and perfect body proportions.” This often leads to unrealistic expectations about weight which can affect one’s self-esteem and cause a distorted body image, says Dr Robbs.

She provides some signs and symptoms to look out for:

Anorexia is usually diagnosed when an individual’s body weight falls to 15 per cent below what’s appropriate for their height and build. Some of the other, more specific signs include:

  • Rapid and significant weight loss over a period of several weeks or months;
  • Obsessive thoughts and fears around food and gaining weight;
  • Strange eating behaviours such as eating raisins with a fork, pushing food around the plate or cutting food into tiny pieces;
  • Wearing oversized clothing to hide one’s body;
  • Frequent illness due to a compromised immune system;
  • Social withdrawal with feelings of depression, anxiety or irritability;
  • Being self-critical with a low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness;
  • Excessive, almost compulsive exercising;
  • Use of laxatives, diuretics and appetite suppressants.

How, when and what kind of help to seek

If you or someone you know displays any of the above signs or symptoms, seek help immediately. It’s important to first consult a general practitioner to rule out any other physical illness that could account for the weight loss, and then be referred to a psychiatrist and psychologist.

They will work as a team and most likely adopt a combined treatment approach using a combination of medication and both individual psychotherapy and family therapy. In severe cases, inpatient hospital treatment, which can last between two to six months, may be required to restore weight and body functions.

These sites can also help if you or someone you know faces an eating disorder:

Eating Disorders South Africa: or call 012-993-1060.

Twin Rivers Addiction Recovery Centre: or call 082-863-3159.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group: or call 011-262-6396.

-Carla Solomons


Picture: darcyadelaide

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