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Anorexia and bulimia: Illnesses or lifestyle choices?

Tiernan McKay is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado. Her writing has appeared in magazines such as Alive!, Occupational Health and Safety, Restaurants and Institutions, Tampa Bay and Arizona Woman. Right now, she is either ridi...

Eating disorders glorified online

While most of us view eating disorders as dangerous illnesses, some people are finding acceptance and even encouragement in online communities often referred to as “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) and “pro-mia” (pro-bulimia).
Anorexic teen

These websites beg the question: Are eating disorders truly illnesses or simply lifestyle choices?

Across the country, teenage girls pick themselves apart while staring into full-length mirrors and mothers feel pressure to lose weight immediately after delivering their babies. Clearly we are obsessed with weight, but should we be glorifying extreme efforts to lose it?

A sinister community

Eating disorders, body image and societal pressure to be thin are topics that seem to infiltrate every high school, college dorm and gym. Some mommy groups even focus on losing baby weight. Under this pressure to be thin, plenty of women and girls find themselves falling into eating disorders and find validation online. Some say pro-ana and pro-mia sites lightheartedly glorify the "choice" to get thin by any means. "While an individual may claim that living with an eating disorder is a lifestyle choice, the truth is that an eating disorder is a dangerous illness that must be taken very seriously," says Erica Ives, M.A., MFT, CEDS, a marriage and family therapist and eating disorder specialist.

Read about pro-ana and thinspo for children >>

Pursuing perfection

An eating disorder is insidious enough without an entire subculture justifying destructive behavior as a way of life. By framing eating disorders as a lifestyle choice, sufferers may have a false sense of control — a belief that they can stop whenever they feel like it without ramifications.

"[These websites] provide a forum, to gather and share successes in their pursuit for perfection, to praise one another for ‘accomplishments,’ and challenge one another to be better and more skilled at their eating disorder," says Ives. While many sites claim to offer support or education, few, if any, truly address the needs of a person suffering from an eating disorder.

Find out: What is disordered eating? >>

Easily susceptible

It’s not just teens that are susceptible to anorexia and/or bulimia, and there’s no single cause of eating disorders. It seems the combination of societal pressures, media images and transitional life experiences can leave us all vulnerable. "The increase of media outlets and influence, including blogs, which endorse the pro eating disorder lifestyle, can be extremely intriguing to the teen, young adult and even the ‘first time’ mom population," says Ives. "These are developmental stages where there is a great deal of vulnerability to conform to a new identity and to fit in amongst peers."

Read more: How thin is too thin? >>

(Un)Convincing argument

Most eating disorder experts agree that anorexia and bulimia are serious mental health issues, not lifestyle choices. But, when perfection is the goal, we can talk ourselves into believing that an ‘ideal body’ can be reached through unhealthy choices. While sufferers of eating disorders may use this argument to convince themselves that they are in control, they are rarely able to convince their loved ones.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, contact a qualified professional.

More about eating disorders and body image

Young girls and healthy body image
Eating disorders on campus: Why you should talk to your teen
Raising girls: The "I'm fat" conversation 

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