Special Report: Dangerously Thin

An inside look at an internet world dedicated to anorexia.

** FILE ** A model presents an ensemble by French fashion house Guy Laroche, during the presentation of its Spring-Summer 2007 ready to wear collection in Paris, in this Oct. 7, 2006 file photo. France's lower house of parliament adopted a groundbreaking bill Tuesday April 15, 2008 that would make it illegal for anyone including fashion magazines, advertisers and Web sites to publicly incite extreme thinness. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere, File)

Lauren is recovering from anorexia.

"I wouldn't wish it upon anyone," the MSU student says of her battle with the eating disorder. She doesn't want to show her face or reveal her last name, but she is talking about her two years with anorexia. She says it started as dieting with friends, and then it spiraled out of control.

"Every time we would lose a little bit of weight, it wouldn't be enough," she explains. "It kept going and going."

Lauren, who is 5'6", got down to 105 lbs.

"It just gets into your head that what you're doing is normal, and it just sort of goes from there," she says.

Some 11 million Americans suffer from eating disorders. Anorexia is no small problem. In fact, it is the third most common chronic illness among teens and it has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

Ronda Bokram, a registered dietitian at Michigan State University's Olin Health Center, counsels people with eating disorders. She explains anorexia as a psychological disorder that's often reinforced by how society views beauty.

"Think about it," Bokram says. "When you lose weight, what do people say? 'Oh, you lost weight, that's great!' I mean, you rarely get somebody who says, 'Wow you gained weight! That's fantastic.'"

Dealing with an eating disorder is difficult enough, without factoring in the Internet. But the truth is, there are thousands of websites out there dedicated to anorexia. They're described as pro-ana, and they're a complicated, secretive world.

"It can be a really dangerous thing, and I would never recommend someone to do it," Bokram says, of websites that provide tips and tricks for losing weight.

"Ways to deceive your family that you're eating or not eating, ways to make your weight different when you go to the doctor so that it looks heavier than it actually is, ways to keep yourself going through a day without eating, basically," she says.

Some sites have message boards where users post their heaviest, current and goal weights. One user, who started at 130 lbs, says she is shooting for 90 lbs.

Many of these websites are plastered with images of skinny women. The photos are referred to as "thinspiration," Bokram says. "Pictures of very very thin, whether they're digitally altered, emaciated looking bodies, to inspire people to keep moving forward in their restrictive eating and their anorexia."

But not all pro-ana sites provide this kind of negative reinforcement. In fact, some that call themselves the real pro-ana, offer support.

"They're not telling you what to do or not do, they're just saying 'This is where you're at, we connect with that, and you're not alone,'" Bokram explains. "I can understand the draw for some people to just have someone say without judgment, 'Okay, I care about you.'"

That said, these types of pro-ana sites do not constitute treatment, nor are they enough to get an anorexic through recovery, which is a very difficult process.

"It's definitely been a lot of work. It's sort of like a full time job that you have to totally commit to," says Lauren. "But it's definitely possible to get through it and it's definitely worth it. I'm a hundred times happier."

If you would like more information about anorexia or other eating disorders, including where to find treatment, click on the Hot Button or visit http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/.


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