What is the Pro-Ana movement for people with anorexia?

Katie Rickel, PhD
The Pro-Ana movement is an underground cyberworld full of “thinspiration” -- motivational tactics for extreme weight-loss behaviors -- targeting individuals in the depths of anorexia nervosa.

For creators of these websites, the Pro-Ana movement serves as an expanded forum in which to have their “voice” heard. Many individuals who develop anorexia have grown up in families in which their thoughts, feelings, and desires were ignored, invalidated, or criticized. Expressing sadness in words was unacceptable; crying was a sign of weakness. Thus, these young people often feel as though the only way to communicate their internal struggle is to make it external and visible -- essentially, dieting until they appear as sick as they feel. The body and behaviors become the voice, and the message is delivered effectively. In this way, the Pro-Ana websites become a useful tool for projecting that voice to a wider audience.

For consumers of these materials, the Pro-Ana world provides a kind of social support for which those who struggle with anorexia are desperate. Because most social activities in our society do involve food, these individuals often isolate and turn down opportunities to build and foster relationships. Additionally, the pathological behaviors and beliefs around food practiced by those with anorexia can create feelings of shame and loneliness. Reading and seeing that others are engaging in similar experiences can create a sense of comfort and belonging, despite the destructive nature of this common ground.

Despite the fact that participation in the Pro-Ana movement can fulfill these aforementioned needs for individuals struggling with anorexia, it is clear that these websites are doing more harm than good. Many of the younger clients with whom I have worked tell me that they utilized these domains to become “better anorexics.”

Unlike many psychiatric disorders from which folks are highly motivated to recover, anorexia nervosa can take on an addictive quality such that success becomes defined by the severity of one’s illness: how much weight is lost, how few calories are consumed, or how much exercise is completed. When the brain is deprived of proper nutrition for an extended period of time, individuals lose touch with reality and with the ability to recognize that they are committing a slow suicide.

Anorexia is not a lifestyle, as some members of the Pro-Ana community will assert. It is a deathstyle.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.