Thursday 29 January 2015

I used thinspiration sites to fuel my eating disorder

Andrea Weldon found herself addicted to the 'pro ana' lifestyle until the positive message of treatment won out.

Andrea Weldon and her daughter Tamara, 2, with one of her specially designed cakes at home in Aughrim Co. Wicklow
Andrea Weldon and her daughter Tamara, 2, with one of her specially designed cakes at home in Aughrim Co. Wicklow
Andrea Weldon and her daughter Tamara, 2, at home in Aughrim Co. Wicklow
Andrea Weldon at home in Aughrim Co. Wicklow

'I was weight obsessed and everything I did was about dieting. I was very ill, but I didn't necessarily look it," says Andrea Weldon. "During the day I was getting treatment for my eating disorder and feeling motivated in my recovery but at night I would go on to 'thinspiration' websites and get a completely different kind of motivation from people telling me it was a lifestyle choice.

"It's like there was a voice in my head saying all that matters was being thin and here was someone else saying, 'that's okay, here are some tips to do that' – it took me a long time to realise that the people on those sites aren't well and it's not a lifestyle choice, in fact, it's not living at all."

Andrea (31), a care worker from Aughrim, Co Wicklow, was diagnosed with an eating disorder in her 20s and receiving treatment when she started logging on 'pro ana' or 'pro mia' sites (websites that promote anorexia or bulimia as a lifestyle) and fuelling her eating disorder.

"I would tell my parents I was going out socialising, but then go to internet cafes five nights a week instead," says Andrea. "I knew what I was doing wasn't right and I always felt guilty after going on the websites, but it was an addiction and I was hooked."

This week marks Eating Disorder Awareness week, a condition that affects some 200,000 people in Ireland with 80 people dying annually as a result of an eating disorder and the average age of those developing a disorder now just 15 years old.

Worryingly, many of those suffering will have found encouragement, motivation and even tips to conceal their illness while starving themselves on 'how to' websites like the ones Andrea was visiting.

The proliferation of 'Pro Ana' and 'Pro Mia' sites is soaring, with one survey conducted in America estimating that their numbers have swelled by 470pc between 2006 and 2008 alone.

It would be irresponsible to detail the specifics of what is recommended on these sites, but users share drastic weight-loss tips and are usually urged to post photos of their thin bodies so others can encourage them to keep on starving themselves.

Typically phrases like 'nothing tastes as good as skinny feels' and 'those who skip dinner end up thinner' abound and typical requests on the forums are under subject headings like 'want to carry on being ana without my parents knowing' or pleas for 'buddies' who will counsel them out of eating something they may regret.

Pictures of very thin celebrities like Victoria Beckham – once dubbed 'skeletal spice' – Mary-Kate Olsen and Angelina Jolie are frequently posted as inspirationally thin or 'thinspo'.

"These websites advocate anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa as a lifestyle choice rather than as serious disorders and typically contain tips and tricks on how to maintain or initiate new anorexic or bulimic behaviours and how to resist treatment or recovery," explains Jacinta Hastings, chief executive officer for Bodywhys (, the Eating Disorders Association for Ireland.

"They are promoted as a supportive community but the person is encouraged to embrace the eating disorder rather than seek treatment."

"I went home and tried everything I'd just read," says Andrea. "Every night, I tried a different diet, although looking back, they weren't even diets, just different ways to abuse your body."

She adds: "It became a bit of a Bible for me, I was living by the rules on these sites. I never contributed to the content, or got involved in the buddy system, but I read everything, often jotting down other people's heights, weights and BMIs and it made it much more serious – I was competing with others."

She explains: "Weight loss, body transformations, before and after photos of girls in their bra and pants – we're exposed to images glorifying the behaviour every day and it's all feeding into the problem.

"Pro Ana sites may be at the extreme end but a lot of destructive behaviour is promoted in 'normal' media by everyday members of society and we need to look at the effect that is having."

She's right. Whilst some of the images on the 'thinspiration' sites may be of extremely emaciated bodies, many of the photos are no different from those of models seen in magazines or the craze for 'healthies', selfies taken by those wanting to show off their slimmed-down gym bodies.

Irish Independent

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