While researching the pro-ana community for an article, I stumbled across some evidence that these forums have become a hunting ground for sexual predators.
Photo: Charlotte Astrid | Flickr | CC BY 2.0
This article originally appeared on VICE Alps.
Last week, while researching an article, I came across a pro-ana WhatsApp group. It basically functions as a forum for young women who are dedicated anorexics and see anorexia as a lifestyle choice rather than the life-threatening disease it can be. As painful as it was to see teenagers push one another deeper into anorexia, the forum itself wasn't the most disturbing part of the experience.
The Swiss blog Skinnylicious is another pro-ana forum, a sort of paradise for young girls who are toying with the idea of becoming anorexic. It has something called a "twin market," where these young ladies place ads looking for others with the same clothing measurements. In the midst of all these posts, one in particular caught my eye: one by someone professing to be a "pro-ana coach."
"Do you want to lose weight?" the advertisement read. "Get skinny instead of slim? I can help."
The guy behind the post referred to himself as a professional pro-ana coach, offering up his years of experience "purely out of kindness." He included his phone number—which he said girls should only use if they were dead-serious about losing weight. Wanting to learn as much as possible about the grim realities of the pro-ana community, I decided to contact him via WhatsApp.
I told my new coach that I wanted to become anorexic. I also mentioned that I was 15 and dedicated to the task. It took less than a day for "Andree"—the pseudonym under which he introduced himself—to reply. After asking him which weight he'd recommend for me, he explained that he'd need to see a picture of me in my underwear before he could make that decision. The alarm bells already ringing in my mind grew louder.
Andree had told me that he was 25. An adult man wanting to help 15-year-old girls become anorexic and needing intimate photos to do so? I decided to play along for a while and sent the "coach" some pictures that I had found online. I sent a picture of a very young and very thin girl. She barely even needed the bra that she wore in the picture. It appeared that Andree liked what he saw. He agreed to coach me, but not before I agreed to a few conditions.
I could barely believe what I was reading. This madman was telling me that I had to sexually degrade myself to achieve anorexia. The experience was so absurd and his intentions so blatantly evil that I felt physically ill. It appeared that this was a man who stalked the internet hunting for vulnerable teenage girls—most of whom undoubtedly suffered from depression and eating disorders.
I had already spent a week with teenagers belonging to an online pro-ana group for the purposes of another article, and had experienced firsthand the strange self-loathing these girls possessed. They wanted to be reminded of how worthless and fat they were on a daily basis. This man was using a very dangerous illness for his own gain—namely, to get intimate photos of underage girls.
I pulled myself together and decided that I should take this further. The "coach" eventually wanted to speak to me on the phone. I put on my squeakiest voice and made sure to keep my answers short.
Had I understood what he meant by conducting our exchanges "intimate"? I said I had. Then he explained: "I have to be sure that you're mature enough for my coaching. I'm going to ask you a few questions and then give you tasks that you will have to complete."
He asked me when I had lost my virginity, whether I masturbated, and whether I had ever had anal sex. As my stomach turned, I stammered answers while trying not to explode with rage. Once we got off the phone, he sent me the tasks that I had to complete.
I fed him the answers he wanted to hear and decided to contact the police immediately afterwards. When I returned to the page that housed his ad, I was shocked to find that he wasn't the only one up to this. I had been so preoccupied with finding a pro-ana group that I hadn't noticed the dozens of ads there were for coaches. It seemed as if the world's pedophiles had found a new way of gaining access to psychologically unstable teenagers.
All the ads looking for ana-twins or WhatsApp groups seemed to have been placed by girls. But all of the pro-ana coaches either claimed to be male and over 20 or didn't offer any information about their identity at all.
Questions raced through my mind, the answers to which were a resounding and horrifying "yes." Were these pedophiles using pro-ana pages to hunt out young girls with low self-esteem? It certainly seemed that way. Were they more attracted to the thin, bony bodies of anorexic teens? Again, it was hard to escape this conclusion. In the midst of this, my personal coach got in touch again. Apparently, he couldn't wait any longer for the naked videos he had demanded.
This last demand made me flip. "Pupil." This pig was suddenly attempting to go from coach to teacher and master. I came up with an excuse to get out of his toilet challenge and avoid being exposed. But Andree seemed so keen on my fictional 15-year-old persona that he thought he would be able to tempt me with a "real" coaching session.
He explained that his coaching would be most effective if I visited him in Frankfurt. He reminded me that I'd need to work hard to become anorexic and that I'd need to be intimately degraded. He had shown his true colors. I didn't dare to think about the kind of 15-year-old girl who, being so hell-bent on losing weight, would visit such a creep in a strange city.
That evening, I wrote an email to the German police and informed them about my blog, my experiment, and Andree. I know there are many more Andrees out there and many more of these blogs.
The dangers posed by pro-ana blogs have always seemed very pressing and real. But perhaps they harbor causes for concern that go beyond the usual anxieties about deliberate and fetishized teenage weight loss.
At the time of writing, the German police have contacted Interpol and the case is under international investigation.