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The Wrong Type of Encouragement

The Internet can be a useful tool for individuals seeking information on eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating disorder.  For the most part, online research is conducted by those persons either suffering with an eating disorder, or their friends and family, who want some authoritative information on causes, symptoms and treatment options.  Mental healthcare providers and numerous professional organizations and treatment centers aim to provide useful repositories of well-researched articles and blog posts that encourage individuals to get the necessary help to achieve lasting recovery from a life-threatening eating disorder.  However there are a growing number of websites that offer an insidious type of encouragement – “thinspiration,” i.e.: the promotion of and support for persistent eating disordered behavior.

Eating Disorder EncouragementThese sites exist with the sole purpose of providing tips on how to lose weight and suggest strategies to disguise the disease from loved ones.  Research of nearly 200 of the sites indicates that these sites with their “tips” only serve to damage the self-esteem of vulnerable individuals and threaten their well-being by prolonging the duration of their eating disorders.  This is all accomplished by tapping into the increasing appeal of social networking.   These “encouragement” sites have developed sophisticated interactivity which allows for the congregation of ever-increasing online communities of eating disordered individuals.  Rather than acknowledging that they are struggling with a mental health issue with physiological aspects, the visitors to these sites celebrate their disorders.  They are not there to learn about overcoming the underlying emotion issues of their disorders so they may achieve lasting recovery; they are there to receive “positive reinforcement” of their life-threatening behavior.

It is essential that the mental health community and the families and loved ones of eating disordered individuals remain vigilant regarding these dangerous websites.  Because those suffering with anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating disorder often feel isolated and frequently contend with dysfunctional family units, these websites can appear quite attractive.  Instead of feeling disenfranchised, judged, and marginalized, eating disordered persons feel that they have finally joined a community that not only understands them but which supports who they are and how they are. These sites offer the illusion of a “safe harbor” when they are in reality luring individuals into a sea of danger.  By encouraging eating disorders these sites are not demonstrating acceptance and understanding, they are exhibiting irresponsible and cynical behavior that is detrimental to both mind and body.

Researchers investigating these pro-eating disorder sites suggest that these sorts of web destinations be regulated, but such a task is challenging at best if not impossible.  In the meantime, it is up to mental health professionals and the families and loved ones of the eating disordered to do their best to direct those who are afflicted to seeking help and treatment.  We may not be able to eradicate the negative influences but we can at least point toward what is positive, loving, supportive and truthful.