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Dying to be thin

When Karen Carpenter of The Carpenters, the popular music group of the 70s and 80s, was at the pinnacle of her success, nobody knew she was dying. One day, while singing "I'm on top of the world" in Las Vegas, this talented singer and drummer collapsed on stage. It was found that she was seriously underweight.

Soon after, her mother discovered her naked and unconscious in their home in Downey, California. She was rushed to the hospital but was declared dead within an hour. At the age of 32, she died of cardiac arrest caused by the strain that anorexia had put on her heart.

Needless to say, with her death America lost one of its most dazzling singers. But it also drove home the fact that the little known eating disorder many Americans were suffering from, could be a life-threatening one. This was before the term Anorexia Nervosa was even known in common parlance.

Today, both the disorder and its name are recognised all over the world as much as its psychological underpinning, as fuelled by an urge to emulate the pencil-thin, super-successful celebrities, young girls willing torture themselves with severe dieting. Never mind if they end up looking like bag of bones, defying all rationale and traditionally held concepts of beauty.

And it helps that they live in the digital age.

How many pounds till I am happy?

How many pounds till I get thin?

Three more pounds till I am skinny

Three more pounds and I win!

This ditty that has been posted in one of the websites that promote extreme thinness. These websites, created by and catering to young women suffering from anorexia or bulimia, or sometimes recovering from these disorders, project thin obsession as a legitimate lifestyle choice rather than a serious ailment.

It is a sub-culture wherein pro-ana, short for pro-anorexia, and pro-mia, meaning pro-bulimia, are affectionately referred to as Ana and Mia, as if they were human, and are treated as challenging and uncompromising friends.

The purpose of these websites is to help the groups compete with each other or fast (read starve) together in a show of solidarity towards a common goal. They also provide tips on how to induce purging and use laxatives, as well as on how to conceal drastic weight loss or missing menstruation as a result of hormonal malfunction caused by excessive dieting.

Most importantly, the members routinely exchange "thininspiration" or "thinspo" -- images of unnaturally skinny celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie and Mary Kate Ashley. Conversely, as "reverse thininspiration" they may post pictures of fatty food or obese people to keep up the motivation by inducing revulsion.

And exactly how thin is thin? You can judge from the fact that "I love you to the bones" is a popular ana-quote. In a world, where anorexia is regarded as a self-controlled lifestyle, the more bones are on display the better you are judged. Because it shows that you are in charge and have indeed "come a long way from taking orders from a cookie."

This is how a typical pro-ana entry reads like: "so i've already faked breakfast. so long as i throw out my lunch before i get to school and don't eat when i get home i should be fine. sticking to 200cals."

Here's another: "I'm making a promise to all of you NO food tomorrow. at all just lots of water.max today."

For the past few years, the mushrooming of pro-ana/mia sites on the Net has been a well-known fact, much to the consternation of parents, doctors and psychiatrists. But what is relatively new is the growing presence of anorexics on social networking websites like Facebook, MySpace, LiveJournal and Xanga - this, despite the fact that the networking groups have rules against posting harmful content.

Facebook has groups such as "Get thin or die trying" and "Quod me nutrit me destruit," meaning "what nourishes me destroys me." Pro Ana Nation on MySpace, with a membership exceeding 1,000, has a rule that states: "no people trying to recover, it ruins our motivation."

Once you join one "pro-ana" group it can lead you several more, and from thereon to many more. It is a virtual opening to a world where extreme thinness is in vogue, as the ticket to glamour and acceptability.

"These sites typically have an overwhelmingly female readership and are frequently the only means of support available to socially-isolated anorexics," says Wikipedia.

Earlier the pro-ana groups were rather small and tended to remain relatively low profile, and more importantly, did not have visibility. But with the recent proliferation of networking sites, users now have real names and faces and anybody wanting advice or support on getting thin can get help directly.

A 2006 Standford Medical School survey of anorexics found that 35.5 per cent had visited pro-ana or pro-mia websites and of those 96 per cent learnt new methods of purging or weight loss.

Most pro-ana groups have an overwhelming American majority and many members are from the UK and other European countries. But if you think only the white, middle class and Western female is in danger of being anorexic, parish the thought. In India, for example, where curvy women are widely considered as beautiful, being ultra-thin seems to have caught on. According to BBC, psychiatrists in urban areas are reporting cases of anorexia nervosa. It quotes renowned Delhi psychiatrist Sanjay Chugh as saying that he has seen an explosion in anorexia cases over the past few years.

It is indeed a scary situation because anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric illness with an extremely high mortality rate. Beat, the UK's Eating Disorder Association, estimates that up to 20 per cent of those who become seriously affected by an eating disorder can die prematurely and are suicide-prone.

A spokesman for MySpace quoted by BBC says it can be "very tricky" to distinguish between support groups for users who are suffering from eating disorders, and groups that might be termed as pro-anorexia or bulimia.

"Rather than censor these groups, we are working to create partnerships with organisations that provide resources and advice to people suffering from such problems, and we will target those groups with messages of support," he says.

But, to be really fair, thin obsession existed much before the Inernet did ů the death of Karen Carpenter is a point in case. It is the subsequent relentless media glamourisation of emaciated celebrities that has established the credo: You can never be too thin.

Some heartening news

For those trying not to subscribe to the ana thing anymore, help is at hand in the form of websites like We bite back, House of thin and Fading inspiration.

Here is a quote from We bite back: "This is the site that comes after the madness "Welcome to the first website designed specifically for post-pro-anorexics. We represent a worldwide virtual network of people proactively seeking recovery and happiness with the same dedication that pro-anas apply to seeking lower goal weights."

As with all lifestyle trends, the post pro-ana wave seems to have truly kicked in. While thininspiration may still find thousands of young takers around the world, many of them might also be looking for a road to recovery. The post-ana websites stress on the choice to withdraw from anorexic behaviour or lifestyle.

These sites have been built to explicitly offer support towards those suffering from an eating disorder by focusing on its root cause and to bring about fundamental change in attitudes.

House of thin, for instance, does not feature any tips, tricks or thinspiration. "If you are looking to become anorexic or bulimic by being here, it's not going to happen. You cannot just wake up and become anorexic or bulimic, and by joining a pro-ana/mia community will not give you anorexia or bulimia. Instead we offer information on various eating disorders, plus BMI, BMR and metric calculators and news articles " about issues surrounding the eating disordered world.

Source: Gulf Today
Posted : 15/03/2008

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