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Illustration by Joelle Leung, 16, La Cañada HS

During vacation I practically lived online. As I surfed the Net and updated my online journal at late one night, I suddenly came across another random girl’s Xanga. It seemed normal enough, but then I noticed an inconspicuous link. Curious, I clicked on it and found cheerful pastel color schemes and attention-grabbing titles that seemed like an innocent teenage girl’s Web site. I clicked on the "thinspiration" link and was sent to a picture of actress Calista Flockhart looking stunning in a red dress.

As I kept looking, the pictures gradually grew more graphic, showing women who were disgustingly thin. I was shocked because I didn’t know that any human could ever look like these women did. They had no bodies; they literally looked like skin and bones. While I glanced at the rest of the content on the site I found poetry about anorexia, nutritional information on "safe foods" and tips for keeping this habit a secret. I knew that anorexia was an eating disorder, but the Web site’s slogan was, "Anorexia is a lifestyle, not a disease."

I was so appalled by this Web site that I had to instant message my friend and tell her about it. The moment I told her she responded, "Oh my God, shut it down! Close it! Close it!"

But I didn’t. The pictures of the undernourished models and actresses sickened me, yet I couldn’t look away. I shut down my computer and went to sleep but I dreamt about their skeletal appearances all night. The next day I went online and ended up back at the same Web site. There was something so alluring about these girls, smiling as they wasted away into nothingness.

As I became more intrigued, I started to read the poetry on the site. The poems were strangely touching, like one girl’s "Self-destruction can be such a beautiful thing" while other poems were chillingly powerful, like "See the girl with the hollow eyes/ Hate the symptoms, love her size." These girls wanted love, attention and acceptance, just like everyone else. I related to their obsession with perfection; as much as they wanted to have the perfect body, I wanted to have the perfect grades. Just as they took pride with every five pounds lost, I savored every "A" I earned. These Web sites weren’t about losing weight, they were about achieving perfection, and these girls weren’t weirdos, they were girls like me struggling to be perfect, too, or so I thought.

The more time I spent browsing these "pro-ana" Web sites, which promote anorexia, the more I began to criticize myself. I could see all of my own flaws: my flabby thighs, my chubby cheeks, everything was ugly. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I started to follow the diet tips. I began to drink gallons of water and started to ban myself from foods that these sites labeled as "bad." I ate mint gum to make everything taste awful, and I even volunteered to wash the dishes so that my mom wouldn’t notice that I hadn’t eaten much of my dinner. Still, I saw no results, so I decided to try the exercise tips. Late one night, while everyone else was asleep, I looked at myself in the mirror and started to cry. How could I feel good about myself when everything online told me I was too fat?

Dizzy from exercising

One day I stayed up until two in the morning blasting Gwen Stefani’s "Crash" from my stereo. For some reason, I couldn’t sleep so I decided to try some of the exercises listed on some pro-ana sites in hopes of flattening my rebellious stomach. I did crunches and sit-ups until I lost count and began to feel dizzy. After I desperately tried to catch my breath, I decided I should stop exercising and go to sleep. The next morning, I was completely exhausted and there were weird dark red lines on my stomach. For the rest of that week I had trouble sitting down and it even hurt to laugh! At that moment I freaked out with the realization that I had been sucked into the world of anorexia without even knowing it.

I was incredibly disappointed in myself. How could I be so stupid? I had always criticized people who obsessed over calories and now I was doing the same thing. I felt like such a hypocrite. One night when I was online feeling depressed, I decided to tell my friend about my "stupid cousin" who was drawn into becoming anorexic because of some Web sites. My friend wasn’t fazed. Right away she guessed that I was really talking about myself. I was so ashamed that I kept insisting it was my cousin and not me who had gone through this whole ordeal. She finally let it go and responded, "I hope ‘she’ is better now then." She let me know that it was OK to feel insecure about myself as long as I wasn’t still doing it. Her reaction made me feel better about myself, but I still felt humiliated that I let these sites get to me. This experience made me aware of the dangers that these Web sites pose. I mean, I never thought that I would become influenced by a couple of pictures and some poems, but I’m not as strong as I thought. I’m human and I’m insecure, and after this experience I’ve realized that I’m also far from perfect.

When I started doing some real research, I found out that anorexia and bulimia involve more than merely a search for the perfect body. Eating disorders indicate severe emotional problems and people who suffer from anorexia avoid food for psychological reasons. Those who binge (eat large amounts of food in short periods of time) and later purge (make themselves vomit) are classified as bulimic. People who suffer from these eating disorders are often isolated from others so they can hide their disease. Maybe that’s why many anorexic and bulimic people turn to the Internet to connect with others who have similar problems.

There’s a powerful camaraderie within these pro-ana Web sites where women and men share their daily food struggles, successes and failures online. In one forum people suggested that all pro-anas wear a red-bead bracelet in order to show their solidarity to the "real world."

But I found the Web site of another girl who vowed to recover from anorexia. She said she would no longer be updating her pro-ana site, which featured her artwork, poems, tips, tricks, links and much more. I was shocked to find that even though she had many online buddies, once she made the decision to recover, they turned on her. These supposed "friends" were now bombarding her with triggering images—pictures of super-skinny men and women intended to encourage her to keep starving herself—and hate mail so that she had to shut down her e-mail account and cut off all contact from anyone online! Another girl who admitted to eating an entire carton of ice cream and a bag of M&M’s was called a "fat pig" and urged to rush to the bathroom to puke it back up.

As I continued to analyze the messages on these sites, they didn’t seem to make any sense. One moment they claimed that it was healthy to set insane goals for their bodies through fasting, vomiting and excessive exercise, and the next they offered a step-by-step guide for a creepy ritual to summon some anorexic god! In this ritual, you offer tempting foods as sacrifices, say an invocation and then burn the foods. It’s supposed to help you ward off food temptations and lose weight.

Another problem that I had with these sites is their disclaimers. One Web site stated, "There are no victims here … I REFUSE to be held responsible for YOUR decisions since I am not able to make YOUR judgment calls for you." At first, this seemed kind of defensive and arrogant, especially since I thought people always had the option of looking away or closing the browser box. However, after I’d nearly fallen victim to anorexia, I felt like the creator of the Web site should have taken more responsibility for the content of her site. Sure, she mentioned that the pictures could trigger a recovering anorexic/bulimic person into relapse, but she completely denied that she was responsible for anything that happened to someone just browsing through her site. In spite of that, the last time I looked at the disclaimer, I felt so sorry for her. Maybe her defensive tone was just a facade for a deeper and more serious emotional problem.

The last time I visited a pro-ana site, I didn’t feel any temptation to sneak a peek at the pictures because I was too angry and depressed to look at any of them. As I re-read the sections admiring bone-thin models, the encouraging essays on loving hunger, light-headedness, and nausea (all results from the fasts people subject themselves to) I started to feel incredibly sad. I even found a girl’s LiveJournal dedicated to chronicling her daily struggles with food, family and friends. In the header on her site, she thanked God for giving her an ugly body, exercise machines and diet pills so she could try to fix her outside appearance "because I just know that the inside is beyond repair."

The problem is widespread

There are literally millions of women and men suffering from eating disorders in the United States alone. An estimated 10 million females and one million males suffer from anorexia or bulimia, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

Because of the many problems constantly going on around the world, people often forget about the struggles inside their own minds. There’s the pressure to get good grades, to please our families, to be popular, to be beautiful, to be perfect—the list is never-ending. Sometimes we forget who we are and try to become who others want us to be. That’s when pro-ana sites step in to take advantage of our insecurities. The only thing we can do to defend ourselves from these Web sites is to be happy with who we are, even if it’s not always the easiest thing to do. I’ve learned my lesson not to define who I am by what size jeans I wear. There’s more to me than that, and hopefully, other teens struggling with their self-images realize that too.