Stealth Project Tracks the Effects of Pro-Anorexia Websites

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
May/June 2005 Volume 16, Number 3
©2005 Gürze Books

The emergence of websites solely designed to promote anorexia nervosa has been a troubling trend. These websites, which have flourished on the Internet, take a positive and encouraging attitude toward restricting food and achieving an ultra-thin body.

Anna M. Bardone-Cone, PhD and Kamila M. O’Neil, MA, at the University of Missouri-Columbia, borrowed many elements from the 300-plus pro-anorexia websites they studied and devised their own “pro-anorexia” test website. They included features common to nearly all of the pro-anorexia websites, such as photo galleries of extremely thin and even emaciated women, including digitally manipulated pictures of models to make them look skeletal.

They also included the central beliefs (Ana Creed), and rules (Thin Commandments) of those who ascribe to the pro-ana message. The website provided information about self-induced vomiting and ways to restrict food for faster weight loss. The website also offered a forum with chat rooms advocating group dieting and fasting.

Once the website was up and operating, the authors randomly assigned 24 young women to view one of three websites they had created: the prototypical pro-anorexia website just described, a website about female fashion using average-sized models, or an appearance-neutral website about home décor. The participants completed a set of questionnaires assessing mood and cognitions before and after viewing their particular website, and completed measures of expected outcomes related to eating disordered behaviors after viewing the websites.

The impact of the websites

As the authors had suspected, the women who viewed the pro-anorexia website reported decreases in self-esteem, confidence about their appearance and perceived attractiveness. They had increases in negative affect, perception of being overweight, and were more inclined to diet and think about their weight and shape. This pattern was not found among the other two groups.

The authors concluded that their preliminary data suggest that viewing pro-anorexia websites had negative affective, cognitive, and behavioral effects on women. The Missouri researchers reported the preliminary findings at the International Eating Disorders meeting in Montreal at the end of April.

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