‘Inspiration: the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially something creative.’ Stick ‘thin’ in front of it and the word takes on a whole new, sinister meaning. Visit any pro-anorexia/bulimia – or, as affectionately referred to by followers, ‘pro-ana/mia’ – website and you will be assaulted with a plethora of images of skeletal supermodels and achingly emaciated anorexics whose ‘figures’ you are encouraged to aspire to. Alongside these are lists of advice on how to starve, starve, starve yourself into oblivion. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the dark and dangerous world of ‘thinspiration’. Yes, just when you think the internet cannot possibly become any crazier, it dishes out the evidence to prove otherwise.
At this point, you would be forgiven for asking the simple question ’Why’? Why would anyone seek out this sort of material; why would anyone willingly access this masochistic world of self-punishment and suffering? The answers range from the simple to the complex. Why does anyone visit any kind of forum or social networking site? To meet like-minded people, to seek social support, to feel a sense of belonging absent from the real world in which they find themselves alienated. That is the ‘simple’, as easy to define as the ribs and collar bones protruding from every single ‘thinspiration’ picture I have thus far stumbled upon. The complex? In accessing a pro-ana/mia site, sufferers seek support for the ‘choice’ to continue their eating disordered behaviours. They do, of course, ogle at these ‘thinspiration’ images, their already rock-bottom self-esteem plummeting as the desire to starve away any extra weight rises; they then share tips on how to hide these behaviours from watchful parents or doctors, exchanging ideas on the latest routes to radical weight loss – purging, fasting, exercising into the early hours.
The popularity of these sites is nothing short of shocking; the damage they inflict even greater still. A 2006 survey of eating disorder patients conducted by Stanford Medical School found that 35.5% of sufferers had visited pro-ana/mia sites. Of those, 96% learned, thus adopted, new starvation or purging methods. This in the same year that researches documented a 470% increase in the prevalence of pro-ana/mia sites. The internet at its craziest? I told you so.
Thus far we have addressed what these sites do offer; the ‘thinspiration’ images of sinewy limbs and skeletons ravaged by starvation; the doctrine rules instructing to ‘cut food into tiny pieces…when you want to eat, exercise for at least fifteen minutes first…’; or my personal favourite from a website claiming to be ‘Queen of the Starvation Scene’, ‘drink water! This is the number one rule for both ana and mia. It fills you up when you are hungry and makes purging easier. Hot water fills you up more and ice cold water helps you burn more calories.
Of course, what they do not offer – a fact that is apparent to the majority of those healthy minds out there, but crucially missed by those who, through no fault of their own, are stuck in the ravages of an eating disorder – is the truth. Let me be perfectly clear, there is nothing – I repeat, nothing – remotely glamorous or enriching about an eating disorder. Being queen, princess, or even peasant commoner of the starvation scene will get you nowhere except a one-way ticket to pain, misery, and a multitude of missed opportunities.
Now more than ever, this holds powerful resonance. Any follower of the news will be aware of the story published documenting the death of Laura Wilmott, an 18 year old girl who recently lost her five year battle with anorexia nervosa. Consider this: Laura Wilmott died due to brain damage and cardiac arrest brought on by severe malnutrition. This was after a relentless cycle of starvation that rendered her incontinent and unable to walk. I challenge anyone, eating disorder patient, ‘thinspiration’ follower, pro-ana/mia forum administrator, to find the glamour in that.
So what can be done? Firstly, I believe we need proper internet censorship. These destructive websites must be stopped. How many other Laura Wilmotts, Ana Carolina Restons or Karen Carpenters have to die before eating disorders are taken seriously by all? Whilst pro-ana/mia sites do not cause eating disorders, they must certainly own up to their responsibility in keeping them going. Attacking anything that glorifies these devastating illnesses could be a first step in tackling the broader problem, defeating eating disorders once and for all.