The Eating Disorder Subculture, and What a Parent Should Know

If you are the parent of an adolescent with a possible eating disorder, there are two names you need to know-Ana and Mia. One of them may be your child’s best friend. Ana and Mia are codenames used in the sub-culture of eating disorders to describe and personify the disease. Ana is anorexia, and Mia is bulimia.
Subculture? Am I being a bit melodramatic? Well here’s a news flash- they are organized, they are talking, and they are more aware than you imagine. Do a simple search on your computer for Pro-Ana. A multitude of pro anorexic/bulimic sites can be found. A search on Myspace under groups will bring up over 85 different discussion groups dedicated to the pro-ana lifestyle.

On these sites individuals (mostly female, but a growing number of males) with eating disorders (E.D.s) give each other tips, encouragement, have contests to see who can fast the longest, and exchange questionable information on how to achieve maximum weight loss and minimum delectability by loved ones.

Another common item on every one of these sites almost without exception is what is called “thinspiration”. Pictures of models and stars who are very thin, and even pictures of each other once they have reached truly skeletal status. One group I encountered in my study had a member who was regarded as superstar among her peers. She posted pictures of her emaciated body, and received many comments of approval and support when she proudly announced she finally had lanugo. Lanugo, for the uninitiated, is a fine layer of white hair that begins to cover the body of anorexics once their weight becomes so low that the body is having difficulty retaining its heat.

A very common item discussed is the use of diet pills and cigarettes to control appetite. Also to be found are rather lurid descriptions of ways to induce vomiting, laxative use, and of course more tips on how to hide all this behavior from family and friends.

The surprising thing is how well informed these sites really are. They acknowledge that they have E.D.s , openly discuss the health risks, and many sights even give advise on how to hold the ravages of the disease at bay to avoid hospitalization.

The question you are asking is WHY? Why would someone knowingly engage in a lifestyle they knew was harmful? This segment that appears on several such sites may give some insight; it is sometimes called the Ana Creed or Prayer:

I believe in Control, the only force mighty enough to bring order to the chaos that is my world.

I believe that I am the most vile, worthless, and useless person ever to have existed on this planet, and that I am totally unworthy of anyone’s time and attention.

I believe that other people who tell me differently must be idiots. If they could see how I really am, then they would hate me almost as much as I do.

I believe in oughts, musts, and shoulds as unbreakable laws to determine my daily behavior.

I believe in perfection and strive to attain it.

I believe in salvation through trying a bit harder than I did yesterday.

I believe in calorie counters as the inspired word of God, and memorize them accordingly. I believe in bathroom scales as an indicator of my daily successes and failures.

I believe in hell, because I sometimes think that I am living in it.

I believe in a wholly black and white world, the losing of weight, recrimination for sins, the abnegation of the body and a life ever fasting.

As this piece demonstrates individuals caught in this disease are not functioning emotionally. If you believe this deadly disease has overtaken your child, spouse, or other loved one you need to address the issue. They are not going to grow out of it; it is not a phase. It is a deadly illness. Here are some things you should consider if you find yourself in this situation:

�· Educate yourself, and be proactive. Do a search under pro-ana, and do research on eating disorder rehabilitation. This is not a situation where you can afford to be na�¯ve.

Ã?· Understand that this is not a moral failure or sin, this is a mental and physical disorder. You are not trying to “catch” your loved one doing something wrong, you are trying to establish an honest and open dialog so that the situation can be addressed. With that in mind, become aware of what sites and blogs are being visited by the person in question. Look for keywords such as “Ana”, “Mia”, “Perfection”, and “Thinspiration.”

Ã?· Don’t get caught up in the superficial struggle of trying to get them to “just eat”. If the issue were that simple, they wouldn’t have an eating disorder. Instead address this as the complex issue that it is, and once the person is willing, seek the professional help of a counselor.

Ã?· Many individuals with E.D.s struggle with control issues, so don’t create a power struggle by forcing an individual to eat something they are not comfortable with, or into a counseling situation they are opposed to unless it is life threatening. Give them a list of recovery options and let them choose which solution they are most comfortable with. This gives them a choice, without allowing the issue to continue indefinitely.

In the end whatever choices must be made, whatever conversations must take place, let compassion be the motivating energy. Acting out of fear, frustration, or anger will only result in conflict and resistance.

Above all seek professional help in dealing with this issue. If your loved one had cancer you would not dream of “keeping it in the family”, or trying to cure it on your own. This disease is no less deadly, and a doctor’s care is just as necessary.

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