Israeli girls use Web to turn eating disorder into 'cult'

The Jerusalem Post/January 26, 2009

Web sites and blogs are turning the eating disorder anorexia - in which victims try to starve themselves - into a cult and even a religious belief, according to University of Haifa doctoral student Meyran Boniel-Nissim.

Speaking on the first day of the second annual conference of the Israel Association of Eating Disorders, Boniel-Nissim said that the Internet's anonymity enables these teenagers to promote their ideal of "Pro-Ana" as a type of goddess who constantly loses weight.

The average age of participants in Pro-Ana activities and communications is 16.7 years, but some are as young as six, she told the conference at the Ma'aleh Hahamisha Hotel on Monday.

Participants, using personal blogs and forums, promote the wearing of rings and bracelets recognized by other followers according to the type of eating disorder.

There are "pro-mias" for those who have bulimia - a disorder characterized by binging on food and then purging it by vomiting so they won't gain weight. Some go "underground," creating even more prestige and mystery, said the doctoral student.

As 91 percent of Israeli teens are online (compared to 85% in the US), the Internet is an easy way for local adolescents with eating disorders to bolster their identity and fortify their desire to starve themselves, she said.

In the US, nine out of 10 young Internet users use the Web for health issues, and most of these are to get more information about dieting, according to the researcher. Only about five percent of eating disorder victims are male.

Anyone who simply looks up "Pro-Ana" in Google will not be able to get into these groups, said Boniel-Nissim, as "the sites, forums and blogs keep changing their online addresses."

Participants regard Pro-Ana "not as a is not a disease but a kind of religious lifestyle, a cult of starvation."

The sites present emaciated models they want to resemble, and contributors write poems and songs to the goddess, give tips on how to hide weight loss from their doctors and family and send in photos of their own body parts to solicit "reviews" on whether their scrawny and bony limbs are "too fat."

Speaking about herself, one participant wrote: "Dear you, you may call me Ana; my full name is anorexia nervosa as the term used by so-called doctors. If you eat, all of your control will be broken. Do you want to revert back to the fat cow you once were? You will always be pathetic, a fat ugly duckling. Your fat drips from you..."

Boniel-Nissim did say, however, that once a girl insists on leaving the group, the rest do not try to hold her against her will.

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