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.
'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.
"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 (bodywhys.ie), 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."
With smartphones, access to dangerous online content is more readily available than ever, but what is perhaps even more concerning is that those vulnerable to an eating disorder don't even need to look as far as the extreme websites for motivation.
"There's not much difference now between these sites and what I'm seeing on Instagram and Facebook," says Jacqueline Campion, school-co-ordinator at the Marino Therapy Centre (marinotherapycentre.com) which specialises in treatment of eating distress/disorders.
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.
Alexa Chung deleted a picture of herself from her Instagram account after fans protested she looked too skinny and compared it to 'thinspo', while former Coronation Street star Helen Flanagan drew criticism after sharing pics from a thinspiration site that featured the slogan 'craving is just a feeling' on her Instagram account.
We pat each other on the back for losing weight, obsessive gym routines and cutting out food groups. Even the word 'thinspiration' has entered everyday vernacular used in headlines about weight-loss and hashtagged on Twitter to celebrate super-slim celebrities.
With children now younger than 10 requiring treatment for eating disorders, it's impossible to lay blame solely at the feet of extreme websites, which the child couldn't possibly be accessing.
'In my opinion, we don't need to be focusing on the websites, we need to be looking at the conversations we're having between ourselves and putting out there on social media," says Jacqueline.
"If we think of the problem only as 'those' people on 'those' websites then we're overlooking a huge number who could be at risk, but won't get help, because they don't fit with the stereotype of the emaciated person looking at extreme websites.
"Don't get me wrong," she adds. "The websites need to be shut down, but with people coming into us younger and sicker it's clear they're picking it up from what they hear about food, weight and appearance at home and around school."
Moreover, there's a danger that focusing on 'thinspiration' images reduces eating disorders to a physical problem. Jacqueline uses the term 'eating distress' or ED rather than eating disorder because it re-enforces the point that the behaviour is a physical manifestation of a deeper problem.
"It's very important to realise it's not just pictures that cause this and it's not just about wanting to be skinny," she explains. "An eating distress is a symptom of a psychological condition.
"Many people affected have a level of sensitivity where they can't filter out all the negativity around them. They feel not good enough. A photo alone won't cause an eating distress, but before the problem can be properly tackled we all need to look at what we're putting out there as a society and our attitudes to image and weight."
Eventually, Andrea managed to pull away from the toxic draw of the 'thinspiration' sites. "I had to cut out all forms of media for a while until I was strong enough to deal with them," she says.
"In the end, the positive message of treatment and recovery won out. The websites might have been the 'thinspiration' but it was treatment that was the inspiration.
"I sat on the fence for a long time listening to both sides but eventually I realised that not only did the information online not work, but it made me miserable. It took a lot of hard work but I finally grasped the concept of recovery – I didn't have to live like this, I could come out the other side and be happy."