Pro-ana Explained: Understanding the Controversial Network

The terms “pro-anorexia,” or “pro-ana,” and “pro-bulimia,” or “pro-mia,” refer to content, usually online, that promotes an engagement in harmful behaviors to maintain what is viewed on these sites as a “lifestyle choice” to pursue thinness.

Eating disorders thrive in isolation, so it’s only natural for those struggling to try to find and build community with people who understand them.

While community plays a critical role in healing from eating disorders, pro-ana content can create an environment where people with eating disorders continue or worsen their self-harm behaviors, resulting in a vacuum where they never find food or body peace and those around them are unable to help.

So the real question is, how can we build supportive communities where those struggling feel understood, while still presenting real options for treatment and healing, should someone be open to it?

What is  “Pro-ana” ?

At least 27 million people  in the United States will be diagnosed with an eating disorder in their lifetime, according to a 2020 report by the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders out of Harvard.

For decades, individuals struggling with eating disorders have turned to the internet for empathy and support.  Social media, blogs, YouTube videos, chats, and websites have provided a platform for people to connect with others facing similar physically, mentally, and socially devastating disorders.  Although many online communities provide a safe space for people with eating disorders, helping them cope with feelings of isolation and disconnection, some online spaces within the eating disorder community promote harmful eating behaviors and prioritize thinness over all else.  Of course, these influences fuel eating disorders and consequently, put people’s lives at risk.

Often, these virtual spaces educate individuals on how to incorporate disordered eating behaviors into their lives, concealing these behaviors from loved ones and encouraging an obsession with achieving extreme thinness. Pro-ana sites frequently showcase images of emaciated individuals, provide step-by-step instructions or tips for food restriction, suggest methods for suppressing hunger, offer strategies to camouflage weight loss, and share “thinspiration” memes and slogans.

This culture extends its influence to social media platforms, particularly Instagram and Twitter (now known as X) where it spreads through hashtags, coded language, and emojis.

Meta (Facebook and Instagram) recently announced their newest attempt at mitigating pro-eating disorder content, hiding inappropriate content from young peoples’ accounts, like posts about suicide, self-harm and eating disorders.

Managing and regulating harmful content still proves challenging, as hashtags and creators can swiftly change or employ words with multiple meanings, as well as other workarounds that teenagers understand – but the adults in their life may not.

The Motivation Behind Pro-ana Content

There is a common assumption that those who post pro-anorexia or pro-bulimia content do so deliberately and maliciously, being fully aware of misrepresenting symptoms as lifestyle choices and aiming to promote eating disorders.  However, this is often not the case, as many individuals sharing such content are battling eating disorders themselves.  In reality, certain pro-ana and pro-mia social media profiles and sites may simultaneously feature content that acknowledges the destructive reality of eating disorders and even expresses a desire to recover. 

While this might appear contradictory, eating disorders are complex mental illnesses, often leading individuals to harbor a wide range of feelings about their condition and the prospect of recovery.  The appeal of pro-ana and pro-mia content to those experiencing disordered eating is usually in the connection and sense of understanding it provides – rather than an intention to hurt others. 

The Dangers of the Pro-ana Content

One of the most harmful aspects of the pro-ana movement is its suggestion that the disordered thoughts and behaviors linked with anorexia nervosa are  choices instead of being symptoms of a serious illness. 

Pro-ana communities often normalize and endorse the unhealthy behaviors characteristic of anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders, such as severe calorie restriction, excessive exercise, and the use of diuretics and laxatives to attain or sustain low body weight.

Anorexia nervosa is undeniably a life-threatening condition for many.  By branding it as a lifestyle choice, pro-ana sites dissuade individuals from seeking treatment, with serious consequences for mental and physical well-being.  Prolonged suffering from anorexia nervosa intensifies its effects, including severe malnutrition, organ failure, and even death.

The potential for exacerbating symptoms through the encouragement of self-starvation and the glorification of emaciated bodies cannot be overlooked, despite the argument that pro-ana sites provide an outlet to candidly discuss experiences and anxieties. 

One analysis of young people who score high on eating disorder assessments found that they tend to have higher thresholds for being startled by “bone pictures” than their normal counterparts, demonstrating that these viewers may have normalized the emaciated body. 

Rhetorical critics have suggested that these visual themes attempt to normalize disordered eating behaviors by linking these extreme visuals with the broader assertion that eating disorders are not an illness but a lifestyle. 

The allure of the pro-ana movement can take on a cult-like quality, which is especially dangerous for vulnerable young individuals.  Pro-ana websites and communities often employ specific language and symbols, fostering an insider status that creates an enticing sense of belonging and uniqueness. This can also make spotting them in the online sphere a bit more difficult, especially among the normalization of diet culture and the thin ideal.

Creating a Positive Space Online 

If you feel compelled to visit pro-ana websites—alternative positive spaces are available. Eating disorder support groups, whether online or in person, and recovery forums can provide a broader sense of community without the exposure of “thinspiration” and encouragement of disordered behaviors prevalent on pro-ana sites.

While many pro-ana sites are blocked, such content still appears. However, most social media sites have a blocking or blocklisting function, or both, to help keep your space online safe and positive. The tools offered and the extent to which they can limit what you see varies from site to site.

Should any particular area of social media make you feel vulnerable, talk to someone you trust and allow them to help you create a more positive experience on social media.

In the ways of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), opposite action can be a step towards healing and finding community online. Specifically, if you feel called to follow and engage with pro-ana content, try engaging with pro-recovery content instead.

Columbus Park: Effective Evidence-Based Treatments for Eating Disorders

At Columbus Park, an established treatment provider for eating disorders, we aim to create a healthy community that promotes recovery and plays a positive role. 

To discuss treatment options at Columbus Park, please get in touch with us today to book a free initial consultation.

You can also follow us on social media.