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February 18, 2013
Type "proana" or "promia" into any search engine, you get bombarded with images of bone skinny women and girls, edited photographs with "thinspirational" messages like "Say no to food, say yes to thin," or, "Don't give up on perfection."

It's one thing to want to lose weight. It's another to do it by refusing to eat or vomiting any solid you consume.

It's frightening, the thought of gaining weight, to a person with a distorted body image or an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa (or the personification "Ana"). People starve for Ana. People die for Ana. For someone who knows someone with an eating disorder, the idea that they are finding online support, blogging about their experiences, finding "Ana buddies" to continue starving themselves is more than alarming.

It's terrifying.

Maybe more terrifying is the idea that many people with anorexia or bulimia (or the personification "Mia") do not think there is anything wrong. From their perspective, they are striving for perfection, they are setting a goal, they are motivating themselves, they are working hard to reach that goal.

People with such goals can find each other via social media platforms through personal blogs, tagging their posts as "pro-ana" or "pro-mia" to facilitate the search. It can be very difficult to reach and to help someone who does not think she/he has a problem.

Eating disorders are harmful. What specifically causes an eating disorder? There is no one answer. A specific cause is not known, but there are associations between eating disorders and several risk factors, including obsessions regarding food, having very specific ideas about beauty... Some also believe that early trauma could be associated with eating disorders in adolescence and adulthood. However, the causes vary depending on the person.

But Ana isn't about the food. This is a common misconception. It's about emotions, and it's about control. Whatever it is that you feel that you are controlling, it is at the expense of your health, and your very life. And you are not in control, it is controlling you.

What can you do if you know someone who has an eating disorder and you want to help? The first step, as with anything, is for that person to recognize that it is a problem. That might be the hardest part. Social support might be one of the most powerful tools. Approach that person in a loving and caring way and speak from your perspective, tell them your observations, your concerns, your feelings. Tell them that you care. Let them know that you are there to offer your support, that you know it will be hard, but you can do it together. You don't want to start right off the bat with something like, "You need to gain weight," even if that is how you feel, because before you even finish that sentence you may have already lost their interest.

Seek professional help. Most cities have a local access/crisis hotline, and if you have access to a computer you can search for resources in your area. If you are in the U.S., the National Eating Disorders Association maintains a free and confidential helpline at 1-800-931-2237. They also have tools for friends and families.

In many cities you can also find anonymous support groups for people living with eating disorders.

If you or anyone you know struggles with an eating disorder get help immediately. Eating disorders can be treated, you can achieve a healthy lifestyle, you can regain control.

See also:

National Eating Disorders Association
Eating Disorders Support Groups
ANAD Helpline: 630-577-1330

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