Thinspiration, pro-ana, and pro-mia may sound like innocent, positive terms for people preoccupied with their weight, shape, or diet. Groups use these names to validate negative self-image and food-related habits while overlooking the severe health and emotional risks that arise with eating disorders.
Thinspiration, pro-ana, and pro-mia are code terms for fixations on low weight and severely restricted eating in order to be thin.
Websites and groups that promote eating disorders are generally run by uncredentialed amateurs seeking to validate and encourage negative food-related mindsets and behaviors.
Pro-eating disorder groups build a sense of empathy for a secret struggle, but their advice can lead to dangerous and lethal consequences.
Hiding behind names like #thinspo, pro-ana, or pro-mia, eating disorder advocates are feeding the growing misconception that self-starvation, binge eating, and excessive exercise are harmless preferences. Such addictive behaviors are symptoms of serious and often fatal diseases including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, or other dangerous illnesses.
What is thinspiration?
Thinspiration, as the name implies, is any social media message meant to inspire extreme thinness. #Thinspo is a common Twitter hashtag referring to this trend. Individuals make up almost 98% of #thinspo tweeters.
A 2018 public health study found that three out of four #thinspo tweets included images of extremely skinny people. These tweets also focus on topics including losing weight, eating disorders, binging, purging, and wanting a certain body type.
What is pro-ana or ana?
Pro-ana means “pro-anorexia.” Anorexia nervosa is a condition where people avoid or restrict food consumption to control their weight and shape. Pro-ana online media platforms push anorexia as a desirable preference rather than the debilitating eating disorder it is.
The National Institute of Mental Health mentions two types of anorexia nervosa: restrictive and binge-purge. People with restrictive anorexia nervosa drastically limit the amount and kind of foods they eat. Individuals who binge purge limit the amount and kinds of foods consumed as well, but they consume large portions of food and use vomiting, diuretics, or laxatives to expel what they ate.
Pro-ana beliefs and behaviors can lead to:
- Extreme body thinness
- Irrational fear of weight gain
- Unwillingness to maintain a healthy weight
Over time, people with anorexia may show or experience:
- Dry, yellowish skin
- Brittle hair and nails
- Osteopenia (thinning of the bones)
- Severe constipation
- Slowed pulse and breathing
- Heart and brain damage
What is pro-mia?
Pro-mia refers to groups or websites that present bulimia nervosa, another eating disorder, in a positive light. Bulimia nervosa is a condition marked by frequent, recurring episodes of consuming unusually large amounts of food while feeling out of control during these binges. The extreme gorging is followed by forced vomiting, fasting, the use of laxatives or diuretics, or a combination of these.
People with bulimia nervosa may be underweight, at normal weight, or overweight. They may experience symptoms including:
- Swollen salivary glands in the neck and jaw.
- Chronically sore throat.
- Tooth decay and sensitivity due to exposure to stomach acid.
- Intestinal upset from excess laxative use.
- Severe dehydration.
- Electrolyte imbalances, which can cause heart attack or stroke.
What is at risk of developing eating disorders?
Anyone can develop an eating disorder, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or body type. An estimated 28.8 million Americans will experience an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are directly responsible for at least one death every 52 minutes.
Why behaviors do pro-ana groups promote?
Pro-ana, pro-mia, and thinspiration sites often display enticements to make eating disorders worse. Triggers may include:
- Tips to lose weight with extreme, harmful techniques.
- Promoting a negative body image.
- Images of extreme thinness in a favorable light.
- Tips to avoid help.
Why do people engage with pro-eating disorder online media
Research suggests that curiosity drives people to access pro-eating disorder online sources. The websites boast of knowledge, a sense of community, and safety. They offer secrecy and coded language, which makes it difficult for loved ones to catch on to these insidious influences.
Pro-eating disorder webpages can coax viewers into “spiraling down”, the experience of becoming deeply immersed in online communities that promote disordered food-related behaviors.
Unmet emotional needs
Pro-ana and pro-mia groups can lure people looking for acceptance, control, and empathy. Many participants believe they can find understanding and affirmation for their eating disorders. The groups cultivate connections with others who have similar experiences, which may make participants feel less isolated in their food-related struggles.
Eating disorders can foster an internal competition to get “better” at losing weight or hiding negative eating behaviors. This carries over to online groups along with the idea of not feeling sick enough to need treatment. Unfortunately, some healthcare professionals unwittingly overlook eating disorder symptoms, so anorexic or bulimic individuals may continue with their dangerous habits.
Resources for healing
Well-meaning or not, groups promoting thinspiration, pro-ana, and pro-mia tend to steer participants away from a positive perspective regarding healthy eating choices and emotional well-being. Avoid platforms that glorify self-harming habits and look to websites devoted to compassionate understanding and recovery.
The following resources provide free, confidential support and information about therapy services:
- National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
- National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD)
- 7 Cups
- Project HEAL