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anorexia for beginners

Anorexia for beginners
uby, a 32-year-old from the West Country, runs an eating disorder blog. She has lived the “half-life” of anorexia since she was 16 and has been in and out of hospital five times. With her doctors’ permission, she writes to me from inside a psychiatric unit, where she is seeking treatment after decades of concealing her illness. “I hid food in tissues, I poured my supplement drinks down the drain,” she admits. “I purged into plastic bags and hid it in my wardrobe. I exercised secretly in my room.”
Dr Morgan is conducting a study of 120 patients, yet to be published, which shows that their access to pro-ana and pro-mia websites “has strongly influenced their behaviours”. There are two basic changes, he says: “first, it reinforces their grasp of their existing behaviour, so people who are losing weight lose more; people who are purging purge more. Second, it teaches new behaviours: they discover things they’ve never thought of before, such as water-loading [using liquids to stave off hunger pangs or increase apparent weight] to deceive your parents or your GP.”
A concerned friend deleted Sarah’s account but, during treatment, she continued to interact secretly with other sufferers via an exercise app on her mobile. “In the wrong hands, it’s toxic,” she says. “You can make your profile private, you can count calories – and there are pro-ana groups in the forums. Nobody stopped me. I could get on it 24/7 and got sucked in. I don’t think I knew I was ill. I thought I’d found people who knew who I was, who weren’t judging me for losing weight.”
Mark Hunter, MP for Cheadle in Greater Manchester, was responsible for tabling the motion six years ago. “I was certainly not the only MP who was concerned,” he explains. “I’ve recently written letters to Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, and Theresa May, the Home Secretary, to ask them to take a look at this. My call is for internet service providers to look more closely at self-regulation, because if they don’t there will be more pressure brought to bear on Government and ultimately we will have to act.”
Rosalind thinks Sophie may have visited pro-ana sites when she was discharged from a mental health unit in Stoke three months before she died. “Pro-anorexia websites are often created misguidedly as ‘support’ groups to share ways of losing weight,” she says. “Obviously it does not help them get better; it colludes with the illness. If young people understood that the illness has a high death rate and lifelong health implications, maybe they wouldn’t be so willing to look at them in the first place.”

“It’s a sad truth that my virtual life is more active than my real life. Words on a screen are not the same as a hug, as a cuppa or a chat.”

Professor Bryan Lask, medical director for eating disorders at the charity Care UK, says social media is a “very important part” of his patients’ lives. “Eating disorders are genetically-determined, but the society in which we live – which creates thinness as an ideal – plays a major contributing role,” he explains. “I have one patient who spends many hours a day blogging about her experiences. I have others who spend many more hours reading other people’s blogs. It becomes their lives. It’s an escape from the inner pain and the confrontation of the external world.”
“If people are affected by anorexia, their ability to judge their own body’s shape and size will be compromised. They can’t judge themselves accurately, yet they’re comparing themselves to people on the site. They forget that these aren’t real-life, walking talking people – the photographs they post are manipulated and lots of them aren’t telling their full story.”
Online, she explains, she found a source of weightloss tips and methods for deceiving doctors and parents. “Things like wearing weighted wristbands when you’re going for weigh-ins or downing three-litre bottles of water to fill you up.”
Websites that promote eating disorders are on the rise. Their users are getting younger and the lengths they go to starve themselves even more extreme. But the only way to understand their world – and to lure them out of it – is to delve inside