Although most pro-ana websites carry disclaimers, the messages read less like warnings than enticing challenges. Ana's Underground Grotto, for instance, calls itself "a place where anorexia is regarded as a lifestyle and a choice, not an illness or disorder. . .there are no victims here."
In 2001, there were some 400 pro-anorexia websites. With pressure from the non-profit National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders web-hosts such as Yahoo! and Angelfire banned the sites. Pro-ana websites were driven underground, far from regulation.
Like many anorexic and bulimic young women, not only was my girlfriend never fat, she never needed to diet. At age 20, she is 5 feet, 10 inches tall. She was once so attractive that years ago, when I walked with her, modeling agency people would come up to her and offer gigs.
So what motivated her to drop from a healthy 130 pounds to being so thin that today she wears a pair of flannel pants under her size-one jeans just to hold them up? Like many young women who are vulnerable to eating disorders, my friend is a competitive perfectionist who does not see beauty reflected in her mirror. And that is exactly what the pro-ana websites feed on.
"You've made a decision: you will NOT stop," advises one writer named Shadows Truth on a pro-ana website. "The pain is necessary, especially the pain of hunger. It reassures you that you are strong, can withstand anything, that you are NOT a slave to your body, that you don't have to give in to its whining."
Although I had known my friend for more than a year I did not realize that she was starving herself until her old roommate warned me, "Please, make sure she eats. She makes it look like she is, but she really stores food in her cheeks and spits it out."
My friend still practices all the diet tricks found on pro-ana websites: Take one or two aspirin a day and sleep less than six hours at night to stimulate your metabolism, constantly fidget to burn up to 800 calories a day.
Sometimes, I came home to the stench of spit-out food in the garbage can. To this day my friend lives on diet soda, water and salty nuts, which she mostly chews without swallowing. My advice goes unheeded as she listens to her "ana" friends on message boards more than to me. The last time I hung out with her, she burped up stomach acid twice and couldn't remember the answer to a question she had asked me a few minutes before.
Like other disorders manifested through punishment of the body, anorexia and bulimia stem from the mind and can take shape in the form of a masochistic practice with pseudo-religious overtones. Some pro-ana websites feature anorexia prayers and sacrifice rituals. A set of internet "Ana Commandments" includes "Thou shall not eat fattening foods without punishing oneself afterwards."
As the friend of someone who learned how to best starve herself from information provided on pro-ana websites, I view them as the equivalent of giving a suicidal person a book on how to kill yourself. Most of the websites I examined featured "thinspiration' photographs of famous runway models and actresses with sharp ribs jutting out of their dresses.
We need to regulate pro-ana websites that feed off our society's obsession with body weight and harm youth. Simply requiring pro-ana websites to feature disclaimers, which often sarcastically warn viewers that if they are "under 18 years old and decide to look at the website, it is not the webmaster's responsibility," is not enough. Pro-ana websites should be regulated as seriously as pornography websites, which must ask viewers to punch in credit card numbers to prove they are at least 18 years old.
We must address anorexia the same way we address obesity and other national health concerns. If restricting access to pro-ana websites prevents one more young woman from learning how to starve herself to death, that is good enough for me.
Shadi Rahimi, 22, is a contributing editor of YO! Youth Outlook, a publication of Pacific News Service.