The followers of Goddess Ana have found a safe haven on the internet, a place where they can post “thinspirational” images of waif-like starlets, ultra-slim supermodels, and women who are so emaciated that their ribs and hip bones nearly poke through their skin. On personal webpages, blogs, and Tumblr accounts, they champion anorexia and bulimia. They are the men and women of the ProAna and ProMia movements, and they are causing headaches for healthcare professionals and those who are battling eating disorders.

The controversy over the ProAna movement reached something of a cultural tipping point in December after the frighteningly emaciated image of model Karlie Kloss began appearing as a thinspiration pic on many of these sites, which use images of impossibly thin women to inspire weight loss. The photo was taken from the Vogue Italia website, and it immediately drew a flood of criticism. Ultimately, the magazine pulled the controversial image from its site.

The incident was unsettling for Vogue Italia and its readers, especially since it followed the company’s launch of an online petition against ProAna. On the petition, editor-in-chief Franco Sozzani says the company “decided to make use of its authority to battle against anorexia.” He added, “Fashion has always been blamed as one of the culprits of anorexia and our commitment is the proof that fashion is ready to get on the frontline and struggle against the disorder.”

The Karlie Kloss image highlights the difficulty of combating the ProAna movement on the internet, where images like these are widespread. “Young, impressionable women look at these and think that they too should look like that,” says Marilyn Ackerman, a young adult and family therapist, and eating disorder specialist, in Mt. Pleasant. “They do not understand the extremes these people go through.”

A seductive hobby

“ProAna” and “ProMia” are slang for pro-Anorexia and pro-Bulimia, and the number of their followers seems to be increasing. “It is huge and rampant and it’s amazingly destructive,” Ackerman says. “It’s very disturbing content, and it’s not just the websites, but there are some videos that are just terrifying.”

On the extreme end, the two most common types of eating disorders are personified as Ana or Mia, and they are often referred to as friends or goddesses. The sites also offer tips on how to make yourself throw-up, how to feel full without eating, and how to hide your eating disorder from your family and friends. In a study published by the American Journal of Public Health, 83 percent of the 180 ProAna sites studied contained content that openly advised visitors on how to start or continue an eating disorder.

Other bloggers use the online world to catalog their day-to-day struggles with the disease, crafting a digital diary of sorts. But even these generally positive sites, which promote a sense of community and recovery, often turn out to be dangerous to those suffering from eating disorders. “They just get all this response that is really destructive,” Ackerman says. “They get all this support and reinforcement for being sick.”

Healthy eating, taken too far

For Jane (we’ve chosen not to use her real name), it wasn’t so much the thinspiration pics that fed her eating disorder; it was the websites promoting healthy eating habits that were her triggers. “There are a lot of healthy eating websites that are fueled by people who obviously have eating disorders,” she says, noting sites where bloggers talked about eating low-calorie diets and then exercising feverishly. “You can go to the websites that are very straightforward — this is how you throw-up, this is how you starve. But I think there are a lot that are masquerading as healthy. Those were really a lot worse and more damaging I think. Those helped me convince myself that I wasn’t really sick.”

Jane is currently recovering from bulimia. She first began suffering from the disorder in high school, but it became more consuming as she grew older. Eventually, she sought help from a therapist.

In Jane’s experience, blogs and community forums provide little in the way of constructive help toward recovery, and she doesn’t believe the communal aspects of these sites are beneficial to sufferers. “Maybe that sense of community is all these girls have sometimes. Your relationships fall apart. You can’t maintain friendships or relationships with your family when you are suffering from an eating disorder,” Jane says. “I can see how in one sad way the anorexic community is the only one that understands you.”

Getting help

Jane has gained a new perspective on ProAna sites since she has been in recovery. However, even at her lowest points, Jane says she still had a hard time understanding the motivation behind some of the more disturbing content.

“I don’t know what drives it,” Jane says. “I cannot fathom, even in the depths of my own sickness, ever trying to help someone else to be sick too. That was not anything that ever crossed my mind. This is a really sad disease and you get really lost in it.”

Jane and Ackerman encourage anyone who feels they are compulsive about losing weight to seek treatment. Additionally, both say that avoiding triggers and bad influences, such as following ProAna websites, is imperative for recovery.

“Everything that these people are saying, they are lies, they really are,” Jane says. “There is no hope in any of it, there is no happy life at the end of any of it. It’s just a faster way to let your eating disorder destroy you. And if you are at the point where you are online and looking at those things, you should know you are sick and you need to reach out for help.”