Ana and Mia: How Eating Disorders Evolved Online

Not everyone should find their tribe online.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Pro Ana. My friend Mia. Thinspiration. If you know these terms, you are familiar with one of the dark corners of the internet where vulnerable people go to find support in making bad life decisions. 

These are pro-eating disorder communities that teach women how to be better at starving themselves. A language emerged to bypass bans and filters, replacing trigger words like anorexia and bulimia, with friendly phrases like: “my friends Ana and Mia.” Bone thin bodies, grim weight statistics, and frightening calorie counts are posted as goals and achievements, hashtagged #thinspiration.

"When you are starving you don't feel emotion. So I hadn’t felt a lot in a while."

These communities have existed as long as the internet, but 25 years after the start of the web, digital life has its tentacles around us in a different way. The threat has matured. Now, if you are trying to recover from an eating disorder, temptation is just a Tweet or Instagram away. And when a single picture of bony arm or a post about a celebrity who only weighs 100 pounds can mess with your recovery, it’s not just the internet that’s a dangerous place. It’s your whole world.

This week on the podcast, the story of how a lonely young girl used the internet to get better at starving herself for over a decade without even her family finding out. And then, the online moment that changed her course to recovery.

In this episode: 

  • Joanna Kay opens up about growing up with anorexia alongside an ever evolving online threat.
  • Sharon Hodgson remembers the dark days of running a Pro-Ana site for anorexics.
  • danah boyd tells us why banning these sites -- as Italy has tried to do -- is a fools errand.
  • Ideas for what could help girls like Joanna.

Resources and where to get help: 

If you found this radio program helpful or intriguing why not share it with someone you know and subscribe to New Tech City on iTunes or via RSS. It just takes a second. 

    Music Playlist
  1. Alone
    Artist: Kenneth J Brahmstedt
  2. Fall For Bliss Slowly
    Artist: Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
  3. Quiet Smile
    Artist: Cullen Fitzpatrick, ASCAP
  4. Minimalopolis
    Artist: Cullen Fitzpatrick
  5. Peaceful
    Artist: Justin Asher
  6. Cat Tail Alt
    Artist: Jack Ventimiglia
  7. Glitter Waltz
    Artist: Jack Ventimiglia
  8. Quiet Horizon
    Artist: Daniel Jensen


Sharon Hodgson, Joanna K. and danah boyd

Hosted by:

Manoush Zomorodi

Comments [3]

Ana Gabriela

Dec. 07 2014 01:20 AM

You didn't even get into the best part. The pro-ana sites are regularly discovered by people who are outraged and very quickly get on to doing something about it. They organize and come in to talk to these people, and help them etc.

Yet, apart from promoting each other's disorders, the thing that really binds the pro participants together is keeping the outsiders out and in-the-wrong. Establishing the thinspiration driven weight goals as a free-will choice, not a problem, that no one has a right limit. They view the problem as the people who tell them they can't do this. Most people trying to help can't get through this, and if it ever becomes a big fight, the pro side just moves. It may look like a shutdown, but it's not.

Sep. 18 2014 11:39 PM
Levi Wallach from Reston, VA

Just listened to another great show, thanks. I can't imagine the struggle it must be for someone like Joanna, and I hope that she eventually figures out her illness enough to not be tempted by some of the bad influences out there. With a 9-year-old daughter, it definitely hits home.

My only thought, and this is coming from someone who doesn't have this illness, doesn't know anyone with it, etc., so take it with a grain of salt, is around what Joanna mentions at the very end of the show - that it's hard to avoid these influences, that they are all over Pinterest and perhaps elsewhere. My thought is that one can easily filter one's own home Internet, and even one's phone. I've seen this being done with people who have other addictions. They use services such as OpenDNS or Software like K9 Web protection to make it so that the target of the addiction is simply not come across. Passwords can be set so that only someone else would have the ability to get around the filters. As for Pinterest, if this is a big area of temptation, what about simply not going there - blocking the whole site? I've never looked at it much, and I know how addictive some services can be, but if it's causing you constant stress, then is it worth the benefits it offers if it also offers these dangers of relapse?

In any case, I wish Joanna, and all the other people with similar disorders luck in conquering them!

Sep. 03 2014 07:16 AM

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