BARBARA McCORMACK IT looks just like any other bracelet. The pretty red crystals are beaded delicately on thin wire with a gold-plated clasp. But this is not the latest fashion accessory. The "Ana" bracelet is the calling card of a secret society obsessed with starvation.
As pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites continue to bombard the internet; the idea of choosing an eating disorder as a way of life has spread like a disease.
The latest step in this malnourished cult is the adoption of a symbol worn on the body to publicly display their suffering. The Ana bracelet is blood red - the colour of energy, courage and fortitude according to wearers.
Another purple bracelet indicates that the wearer suffers from bulimia, an eating disorder marked by periods of bingeing and purging. A combination of red and purple beads means that both anorexia and bulimia are part of the wearer's life.
The bracelets are widely available from Ebay, the internet auction site, for as little as ?10. One seller describes an Ana bracelet as: "Very discrete, only those who are also ana will notice what it really means. To everyone else it's just a gorgeous bracelet."
The bracelets, which provide "thinspiration" for starving people suffering from anorexia, also serve as a badge of honour and a status symbol. One blogger proclaimed "Put on your Ana bracelet and raise your skinny fist in solidarity".
The controversial bracelet is worn on the hand you eat with to remind you to abstain from food. Wearers are also encouraged to snap the bracelet against the wrist when they feel hungry.
The bracelets are also available from an underground website in the US. The site, www.bluedragonfly.org, includes a bulletin board where members can exchange dieting tips and weight statistics. One young contributor asked other board members to share tips on fasting.
"Does anyone have advice on how I could possibly skip having dinner with the family every night? Or maybe some ideas on how to make it look like I'm eating, but eat very very little?"
Helen MacWhite, Communication Officer for Bodywhys, the Eating Disorder Association of Ireland, is weary of the idea of bracelets reinforcing unhealthy beliefs.
"Using bracelets to raise awareness about a particular issue and to encourage people into a community of constructive support can be a very positive and powerful thing. Unfortunately [it] also has the potential to be misused if the aim is to reinforce unhealthy beliefs and collude in behaviours that can endanger a person's physical and psychological wellbeing. Pro ana/mia bracelets clearly have the potential to do this," she said.
A bracelet is also available for people suffering from self-harm. The black and blue beaded bracelet is called "si" and signifies a tendency to cut, burn or self-mutilate.