Pro-ana blogs might actually help anorexics deal with their eating disorder and eventually seek recovery, according to a new study. After interviewing 33 people from seven countries involved in the online thinspo community, Indiana University researchers determined that the 24-hour support the blogs offer somewhat balances out all of the horrifying "I'm not starving myself; I'm perfecting my emptiness"-type memes.
"These communities are providing support, albeit supporting an illness that may result in someone's death," one of the researchers said in a statement. "But until they're ready to go and seek recovery on their own terms, this might actually be a way of prolonging their life, so that they are mentally ready to tackle their recovery process."
Researchers have analyzed thinspo blogs before, but the vast majority simply looked at the sites instead of reaching out to the bloggers themselves before concluding that the pro-ana community defends anorexia as a lifestyle choice instead of a disease. This new study is notable because the research team actually reached out and talked to the women (no men responded) behind the concave belly gifs and advice about how chewing celery burns calories; it turns out that only three called anorexia a lifestyle. Instead, 27 defined their eating disorder as a mental illness, and six said it was a coping mechanism.
"In other words, people living with eating disorders are not purposely making unhealthy or health-compromising decisions. They are trying to find the best way they can to live with this disorder," the researchers wrote.
Still, the findings seem more like a beginning than anything conclusive, since only 33 people were interviewed, and the researchers didn't specify how they defined pro-ana sites. The takeaway isn't that we should encourage 15-year-olds to make their own embroidered "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels" pillows, but that we should take a close look at the qualities that make the thinspo community so hard to break away from — for example, how the blogs offer a round-the-clock security blanket that more constructive support groups could try and emulate.
"We need to see what about (the pro-ana blogs) is drawing people into the community and design blogs for recovery that offer the same kind of useful information so the recovery will work," one researcher said. "By knowing what they're doing in those blogs, we might be able to find better ways to provide online support."