There’s a place on the internet for everything – even eating disorder communities. While you’re not likely to run into eating disorder-related content on most social media platforms if you aren’t actively searching for it, there remain pockets of ED communities on the most popular platforms where young people, especially teenage girls, come together to talk about their eating disorder experiences.
And that’s where things get a little sticky. Though many ED spaces try to give members a safe space to talk about their struggles with eating disorders and teach techniques for harm reduction, a subset of these actively encourages people to worsen their condition, teaching them tips and tricks on how to drop to dangerously low weights.
One of the oldest and most popular of these eating disorder communities was MyProAna.
What Is MyProAna?
MyProAna (MPA) was once one of the largest and most popular eating disorder communities on the internet and it described itself as: “The leading Pro Ana forum and community to discuss diets, thinspiration, results and find pro ana support groups.”. If you Google it now, you’ll still see it on Google search results even though it’s an indexed site. In its heyday, MPA was a hub for sharing diet tips, talking about weight loss progress, and general venting about the struggles of having an eating disorder and the struggles of hiding it.
In its own way, MyProAna was a safe space for people struggling with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. That may be confusing for those of us who have never struggled with mental illness, but there’s a common thread of shame that runs through many of them. I say this from experience as a psychometrician – there are things that people hesitate to say in counseling rooms and would not dare to breathe a word of outside it. In the case of MyProAna, it was well-loved for being a space where people could talk to other people who understood their hardships and wouldn’t judge (or stop them) from engaging in disordered behavior.
These days, MyProAna goes by “Eating Disorder Support Forum” following its purchase by VerticalScope, a social platform company that manages a portfolio of online forums in different niches. It no longer calls itself a pro-anorexia community but a support community for people trying to recover from eating disorders.
Users of MyProAna were unhappy with the change and, understandably, called it an attempt to intrude on their community. There were also the cold hard facts of running a business – as one of the biggest eating disorder communities of its time, it was getting tons of traffic.
And where there’s traffic, there’s ad revenue.
While MyProAna could have continued as it usually had, advertisers are averse to showing their products and service on sites and content they feel are too contentious. YouTube does this a lot with true crime content as the platform finds the topic not advertiser-friendly.
This was likely the reason why MPA was rebranded to Eating Disorder Support Forum. Though this change may seem like a “good” thing as an outsider looking in, the realities of online eating disorder spaces are less clean-cut than they seem. As said before, they work as a safe space for people to talk about their eating disorder experiences…but they also encourage mutual vigilance where community members hold each other accountable for achieving unhealthy weight loss goals. It’s not as black and white as it seems.
Are ED Spaces On the Internet Helpful Or Harmful?
One Tumblr user shared on a blog post dated June 27, 2022, that while she does have apprehensions about MyProAna being acquired by VerticalScope, she also admits that being on the site hurt her mental health. She writes:
“This time around I can truly say that myproana strongly contributed to the deterioration of my mental health. From the moment I rejoined in 2019 to now, I have never been in such a dark place with my mental health. My disordered eating turned into a full-blown eating disorder and the mpa community that you own sat back and enjoyed the show. I have not only lost a significant portion of my body weight, but I’ve lost my hair, my skin, my voice, my smile, my teeth, my sanity, my friends, and my life. My eating disorder has become my entire life. It has completely taken over my thoughts, my body, and my life. And while I can’t and won’t put the sole blame on myproana, this site did nothing to support my recovery as the site claims. It only gave me a place to come and deteriorate even more.”
So why the resistance to the rebranding of MyProAna to Eating Disorder Support Forum? As researcher Angeline Boswell discovered during the time she was observing people on the site, members of eating disorder communities are resistant, and even outright hostile, to people outside their community.
““When will the normies stop bothering us for their research projects?” one person commented on my request for interviewees, along with many other defeating comments. Later I would realize that the status I’d taken on as “normie” in this world of categories meant that I’d aligned myself with the many researchers who had come before looking to ‘solve’ the issue of pro-ana sites.” Boswell wrote, talking about how MyProAna shapes its members’ ideas and perception of themselves, “Involuntarily, I had even become subjectified. I had to edit my presentation to resist this identity, saying I was interested in ‘hearing people’s stories’, and ‘looking at the role of this website in your life’.”
Again, it’s not surprising. These communities are often escapes from friends and family members who typically approach pro-ana and eating disorder behavior as something to “fix”, something that members can find invalidating and even infuriating – not in spite of, but regardless of the health effects of engaging in eating disordered behavior.
This us vs. them perception extends to many eating disorder communities on the web. For the purpose of not giving people reading this a direct means to find them, they will not be named. But in those social media spaces, many users tell non-pro-ana users not to interact with their content and will, on rare occasions, harass users who do so anyway. This can get ugly fast considering how some pro-ana community members will use images of non-community members as further “motivation” to lose weight while shaming them according to pro-ana community standards.
To reiterate, these are rare events and many pro-ana community members recognize it as a disorder – one they wouldn’t wish on another person. But when they do happen, people can get hostile.
There’s also a dimension to pro-ana communities that is even harder to entangle. People come to them, paradoxically, for comfort, and yet these communities, whether consciously or not, perpetuate behaviors that encourage people to get “sicker”. While their social media platforms are different, a commonality among these communities is how they keep records of their current weight, starting weight, and goal weight that others can easily access and compare their progress with.
Lastly, there’s a competitiveness to it. Anorexia nervosa and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder share significant comorbidities versus their comorbidities with other mental disorders. There’s a performance and control aspect to anorexia. It is heavily spoken about in languages of “perfection”, of achieving goal weights and having control over the “base desire” to eat in order to achieve the perfect body.
There is also the desire to prove that one is truly anorexic and sick enough to get a diagnosis. Current anorexia diagnosis criteria still heavily consider BMI as a measure of whether someone has anorexia. This is reactive rather than proactive – it essentially waits for someone to get sick enough to drop to dangerous weights even if they already engage in disordered eating patterns.
Boswell wrote that MyProAna “…even [had] a forum titled “Competitions” which blatantly encourages these forms of comparison.” and that, “One venture into the anorexia forums and you immediately see posts such as “post your calories for today”, “I ate 200 calories today, what about you guys?”, “post your meals”, “I ate a hardboiled egg and yogurt today. Am I still ana?”, and much more.”
Communities to Avoid If You’re Trying to Recover From An Eating Disorder
Aside from communities that are openly pro-anorexia, it’s best to avoid forums and communities about restrictive diets. This doesn’t just mean communities about dieting but also alternative diets such as keto, intermittent fasting, and veganism.
To be clear, these communities are not “bad” places on their own, but they can be a bad combination with someone who has a history of eating disorders as it may devolve into orthorexia, a type of eating disorder that centers around an obsession with eating a healthy way, to the point that the restriction becomes a constant source of worry, fixation, and distress – much like a “conventional” eating disorder.
You probably don’t want to read this, but if you have a history of eating disorders, please consult your healthcare providers (both mental and physical) before you start a diet of any kind.