For three years, when Alison Devenny wanted weight loss tips, she turned to the Internet. But she didn't look for typical dieting Web sites. The George Washington University sophomore visited Web sites that encourage visitors to embrace anorexia and bulimia as "lifestyle choices" and provide instruction on how to do so.
The sites provide "thinspirational" pictures of extremely underweight women, menu suggestions, discussion boards and tips on topics including ways to overcome hunger pangs, such as doing household chores and drinking lemon water.
Alison Devenny, 19, visited pro-eating disorder Web sites regularly until seeking treatment three months ago.
(Andrea Bruce Woodall - The Washington Post)
Despite attempts to encourage Internet service providers to close down such sites, many continue to exist. A recent Google search using the term "pro-anorexia" yielded 30,000-plus results. Many were links to pages by health authorities warning about the pro-anorexia movement, while others were links to sites no longer in operation. But many linked to live sites. A Google directory called "Pro-Anorexia" links to more than 50 sites.
Carol Day, director of health education services at Georgetown University and a member of the school's eating disorder treatment team, called the sites "dangerous and disturbing."
Experts say the sites can reinforce unhealthy behaviors, slow the recovery process and discourage people from seeking help.
"I think anyone who is working in the field of eating disorders realizes how unhealthy" the sites are, Day said.
"I always kind of knew that what I was doing was stupid," said Devenny, now 19, who has since begun treatment for multiple eating disorders. She used to visit the sites about twice a week, she said, picking up tips on how to avoid eating and how to keep her illness a secret from her family.
The terms "Ana" and "Mia" -- short for anorexia (a condition characterized by eating so little that one's health and life are at risk) and bulimia (overeating and then purging by vomiting or taking laxatives) -- are often used by those with eating disorders who don't want treatment.
Frequent visitors to these sites refer to themselves as "anas" and "mias" and say the sites offer a safe haven where they can talk, share advice and commiserate away from the harsh criticism of family, friends and other "outsiders."
The sites' creators are typically teenagers and young adults who have eating disorders. Many are directed at women, who experience eating disorders more often than men.