Eating disorders involve persistent patterns of restrictive or maladaptive eating behaviours, and they pose serious health risks that can result in death if left untreated. Eating disorders disproportionately affect women and often begin in adolescence or young adulthood, but they can affect those of any gender, age or body type. Recent research cited by Statistics Canada estimates the prevalence of anorexia nervosa to be 1% and bulimia nervosa as high as 3%. The high risk of death posed by eating disorders makes immediate treatment a crucial priority; anorexia, for example, has the highest rate of mortality among all psychological disorders – 10% of those affected will die within ten years of its onset.
Online Communication and Eating Disorders
The prevalence of online communities that advertently or inadvertently support eating disorders has become a major factor in the development and maintenance of these disorders for many people. Pro-eating disorder (or “pro-ana”) websites exist to encourage people who cope with eating disorders to perpetuate their illness. There are countless web communities in existence, whose purpose is to inspire and engage individuals (often, but not always, younger women) to continue their dangerous habits in order to achieve impossible weight loss goals. The blanket term “pro-ana” refers directly to the promotion of behaviors related to anorexia. “Ana” is often a mascot of these groups, having become a personified example of an anorexic girl, while “Mia” is often the female personification of bulimia. Many people who engage in these “pro-ana” communities do not talk about their eating disorders with others in their lives, and so the groups can exert a strong influence. The members may encourage each other to lose weight by sharing tips and tactics for using laxatives and emetics, for hiding weight loss from physicians, and for ignoring hunger.
Another pervasive “pro-ana” trend is that of “thinspiration” or “thinspo” – pictures of and commentary about people, food, and memes promoting lifestyle and behaviour choices that lead to weight loss. Though some thinspo is seemingly innocuous (pictures of vegetables and women working out, for example), much of it focuses on images that foster extreme weight loss goals, such as photos of women with thigh gaps and protruding hipbones. Thinspo is often relayed through blogs and social media personalities on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, who mutually reinforce the desirability of thinness with their followers. Backlash against thinspo and its dangerous impacts on those with eating disorders has resulted in a new trend of “fitspiration” or “fitspo”, which purportedly emphasizes strong, fit bodies over ones that are just thin, by adopting a focus on being “healthy” through particular diets and exercise routines. The messages of fitspo can, however, be just as damaging as those of thinspo, often conveying a moralizing attitude about health and fitness, an obsession with control through overly-disciplined “clean” eating and excessive exercise, and a thinly-veiled shaming of fat and other perceived imperfections. Because fitspo is often touted as being “health and wellness” focused by its enthusiasts, an emerging concern among treatment providers is the insidious nature of fitspo’s redefinition of restrictive diets as “healthy” or “normal.”
How Eating Disorders Are Developed
A widely regarded factor associated with the development of eating disorders is the western cultural fascination with a very narrowly defined conception of beauty. Our visual media provides an array of distorted messages regarding (and reinforcing) the marriage of beauty and thinness, particularly for women. Television and Internet media highlight thin bodies as the norm and often demean public figures, particularly female celebrities, if they show any sign of physical imperfection (often highlighting weight gain as a particularly offensive crime). In combination with public perceptions of beauty, peer-pressures and bullying can result in the development of an eating disorder. Other factors that can contribute to the development and progression of anorexia or bulimia include (but are not limited to) stressful life events, being involved in dancing or sports, and physical or sexual abuse. Young people with the tendency toward depression and anxiety are also at higher risk.
Eating Disorders Statistics
According to a 2006 study (documented in the article “Surfing for Thinness”) by the American Academy for Paediatrics, only 50% of parents of youth who were affected by an eating disorder knew about the online communities their children were involved in. As time has progressed and the Internet has expanded exponentially, we can only worry that this number has since increased, among both youth and adults. The same article suggested that over 94% of people who visited these “support” sites left the experience armed with new, and often creative, weight loss and purging tactics. Prevention can be utilized as an effective tool to combat these groups.
What You Can Do Against Eating Disorders
Friends and family of those with an eating disorder need to become aware of its serious risks and of the harm that online “pro-ana” social groups can perpetuate. Helping a loved one who is coping with an eating disorder to access effective treatment is a crucial first step toward healing. Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, and in particular Enhanced CBT (CBT-E), is the leading empirically supported treatment for eating disorders. The clinicians at The Clinic on Dupont use these and other evidence-based treatments to help their clients disrupt the destructive cycle of thoughts and behaviours that drive eating disorders.
Are you or a loved one affected by an eating disorder? Let The Clinic On Dupont be your resource for more information about comprehensive treatment.
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