What’s it like to have an eating disorder online?

A young woman tells the story of her anorexia - and an eating disorder expert talks about how tech has made her job harder.

Mental health and wellbeing
By VoiceBox ·

Tara (not her real name)

Young author

Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the thinnest of them all?

Please note: this article includes sensitive topics that some people might find difficult.

Ana and Mia. They sound so inviting. The type of friend you can rely on. The type of friend who will never let you down. And this is exactly what Ana and Mia want you to believe.

When I was suffering from anorexia nervosa, my therapist, let's call her ‘Z’, told me my brain had a dangerous chemical imbalance; it had been split into two and the part that was me and not Ana would get smaller and smaller until there was nothing left.

Z was right. I had been completely consumed by what I thought was my best friend. Ana was there, all the time, no matter what. She exhausted my mind, never letting me eat but instead making think about food, read about it, watch it, and count the calories in it religiously. She told me that if I was just a little bit skinner I would have friends, I would be beautiful and I would be happy. If I dared to eat a morsel of food she would tell me I was fat, useless, and ugly, and she would punish me by making me exercise until I passed out.

‘Fat’ was a word I thought about regularly. A lot of people will roll their eyes and say ‘fat isn’t a feeling’ but anyone who feels self-conscious about their body knows this isn’t true. The famous saying, ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’, often delivered semi-approvingly or at least with a wry smile, is utterly grotesque, revealing the pit of fake positivity into which our society has fallen. To those with an eating disorder, fat is a feeling. Feeling fatness physically growing on me after eating was enough to make me scratch my skin raw in an attempt to ‘get it off’ me.

My words may seem shocking, especially if you know someone who's in a similar situation. An eating disorder is not glamorous, or attractive, or a lifestyle. It is a devastating illness that can ruin lives; and the faster it is caught the higher the chance of recovery.

A frequent solace for those with an eating disorder are pro-ana and pro-mia sites. Often, the person behind them is also suffering from a mental illness. Visitors exchange extreme weight loss tips, ‘inspirational’ quotes, and stories of ‘deviance’ in order to avoid eating. These sites should be shut down, yet their attraction is that they are a place you can go to feel understood and accepted.

For this reason, it is extremely important that sufferers get the correct support as soon as possible and understand that they are not alone. They often feel isolated and they will lash out and accuse those who try to include them of trying to make them fat. Do not indulge them, do not reason with them, do not judge them and don’t say ‘I understand’ or ‘I know how you feel’. Unless you have also had these illnesses, you will have no idea what they feel like. This is why pro-ana and pro-mia sites are so popular: plotting together and supporting each other in a ‘journey to perfection’ is what people with eating disorders crave. Those who visit these sites are usually not in recovery. They do not want to get better and they do not want help. At best, they want someone to tell them they’re feeling the same way, and at worst, they want to compete with others to become the sickest.

Like most areas of the internet, a lot of pro-ana and pro-mia sites use algorithms so that advertisers can target specific internet users with products that might be of ‘interest’ to them. As you can imagine, I spent a lot of time googling food, dieting tips, recipes and of course, pro-ana sites. One day, during my usual internet routine, I got a pop-up advert for diet pills. I didn’t consider the consequences of clicking on an ad that promised to make me beautiful. My only priority was to lose weight, fast. I ordered some pills, thinking I’d ordered one round, something that (hopefully), my parents wouldn’t notice. Alas, I was cheated out of £80 and a year’s supply of diet pills arrived at my house. My mother, naturally, was completely bewildered that I would order an appetite suppressant, and fuming that such a substantial amount of money was gone.

It took a long time for anyone to wake up to the fact that I was sick, even though I was screaming at my sister for not eating the high-calorie food that I had made her, obsessing over fitness apps, and arranging the food in the kitchen over and over again. I was also losing weight: the physical ailments that come with an eating disorder are often the eventual killer: brittle bones, hair loss, organ failure and heart failure are all possible side effects, although not all sufferers are underweight.

I was put on a strict regime of eating: set meal times, snack times, and a list of ‘safe’ foods I had chosen. Safe foods are essentially, food you aren’t so scared of. Z put me on a lot of protein shakes (which were absolutely disgusting), as a way to get high volumes of calories into me without eating too much and damaging my unnaturally small stomach.

Food routines were non-negotiable. I remember hours sitting at the dinner table as I refused to eat what was in front of me, not being allowed to leave until every scrap was gone. This system of eating was an extremely important element of my family life. Professional help is paramount to recovery, and there cannot be conflicting messages at home, even though taking a stand can be hard, as sufferers will often manipulate and blackmail their families to avoid eating. This behaviour isn’t them; it's the eating disorder.

Pro-ana and pro-mia sites can be a huge influence in the development of an eating disorder. They can delay recovery and have the potential to make you worse. They are unlkely to be the originators of the problem: the latest research suggests that eating disorders have a genetic element that is triggered by environmental causes.

Pro-ana and pro-mia sites aren’t the only or the main signs of an eating disorder - but if you are using them, or think you know someone who is, the most important thing is to seek advice from a professional. The quicker this illness is caught, the higher chance there is for recovery, so if you have any reason at all to believe yourself or someone else is suffering, take action.

I never go on these sites anymore. I was lucky enough to get fantastic support from both professionals and from my friends and family, and now I can say I am pretty much recovered. I still relapse sometimes, but I have developed tactics to pull myself out of Ana’s grasp when she tries to capture me, and I am growing stronger and stronger each day.

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