Pro-Anorexia Web Sites Prey on Insecurities (cont.)

Her paper appears in the online Journal of International Women's Studies.

"Most sites make it clear that their purpose is to support those who are struggling with an eating disorder, and to provide a space, free from judgment, where they can share ideas and offer encouragement to those who are not yet ready to recover," writes Dias.

Dias quotes letters posted by readers: "Dear Ana, I feel trapped by you. ... Where is the love you promised? The acceptance? When will I feel like I'm finally in control? Why is it that the more I control what I eat and weigh, the more out of control I feel? As I peel away the layers of fat, the old problems resurface ... the depression, the loneliness, the cutting, the insomnia."

Such narratives "illustrate women's struggles, emotional pain, and searching for acceptance and connection, as well as an ambivalence towards recovery," writes Dias.

Many Hidden Agendas

In fact, the web sites have a spectrum of agendas, Bunnell tells WebMD. "Some are 'way out there,' offering tips on how to get rid of food. Others are more mainstream and encourage people to get treatment. With others, there is intent to promote recovery -- but there will also be a pro-anorexic subgroup in that web site."

When a web site or message board "fuels" this lifestyle choice, it makes treatment all the more difficult, says Bunnell.

"The girls have a strong desire to maintain the disorder," he explains. "They love the disorder. It serves a purpose for them. When you ask them to give it up, you're asking them to give up something quite precious. Dieting or fasting becomes a political statement, a lifestyle choice, an identity statement. These are often very intelligent women, and you can get drawn into their philosophical arguments."

Australian researcher Megan Warin spent three years talking with anorexics. She found that they view their disorder as "empowering" rather than seeing it as a debilitating psychiatric illness. The message boards offer a sense of community much like an "exclusive sorority," which helps explain why treating the condition is so difficult, writes Warin.

The girls' strong competitive drive -- and perfectionism -- drew them into anorexia or bulimia. Those very qualities make the pro-anorexia chats dangerous, says Vivian Hanson Meehan, president of the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Diseases. "Often what happens when you see anorexics in a group, they start to compete with each other. They are vying to be the best anorexic ever."

Often, a need to control some aspect of their lives is the driving force for an eating disorder, says Graham. "Eating is one of the very few things you have control over. That feeling of control is really powerful. They are helping each other feel powerful. 'Good job, that's great.' They make each other feel good about something that is very negative."

But there's room for optimism on the Internet: One web site called "Something Fishy" is pro-recovery, with chat rooms, forums, and T-shirts geared to motivate girls to recover from eating disorders, Graham tells WebMD.