I Spent a Week Undercover in a Pro-Anorexia WhatsApp Group
The skeletal girls in it bowed before a mysterious leader known as "the goddess of emaciation".
Photo Christy Mckenna, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
This article originally appeared on VICE Alps
A few weeks ago, I was chatting to a friend about the kind of lifestyle choices that can ruin your life. Eventually, we landed on pro-ana. "Ana" stands for the illness anorexia nervosa and "pro" connotes an obsessive and absolute devotion to it. My friend told me that wannabe anorexics look for and find each other in forums with the ultimate goal of driving each other deeper into anorexia.
It took no longer than five minutes of googling for me to find a forum full of pro-ana enthusiasts in my country of residence, Switzerland. According to the website, pro-ana is more than a lifestyle: it's a religion. There was a post with a list of commandments ("Refusing to eat and being thin are signs of true success and strength!") and another titled Ana's Letters. In these letters, "Ana" speaks to the reader as the "goddess of emaciation", explaining that stomach cramps caused by laxatives are to be celebrated as the death rattle of the hated pounds. The goddess of emaciation also warns that if you break her rules, you will be punished.
"I will force you into the bathroom, onto your knees. You will stare into the empty toilet bowl. You will stick your fingers in your throat and, not without pain, your food will come out. You need to do this over and over and over again, until you taste blood and water, and know it's all gone. When you stand up, you'll feel dizzy. Don't faint! Stand straight! You fat cow, you deserve all the pain you get," the post writes.
Both Anas and "Mias" – bulimia fanatics – are extremely organised. It only took a few minutes of browsing the forum to find three WhatsApp groups, all of which I could join after passing an entrance test: letting them know my height, my age and my weight. I lied about my age and claimed to be 19. At 5ft 3, I currently weigh 7.5 stone. I was admitted and given my target weight: 6.9 stone. That corresponds to a BMI [Body Mass Index] of 16.6 – when I type this into Google, the search engine tells me to immediately seek medical help.
There were four other girls in the group chat – all aged between 13 and 23. First off, they explained their rules to me: I was allowed a maximum of 800 calories per day. I was not allowed to eat anything after 5PM. Every calorie had to be worked off with exercise. On Sundays, these skeletal girls send each other full body photographs and pictures of their scales. If you break the rules, you're thrown out of the group.
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Once I'd agreed to the rules, I was asked to disclose what I had already eaten that day. I was honest – a small cheese and egg roll and a plate of quinoa with vegetables. I didn't know how many calories that meant. The Anas let this one pass because I was new. The group admin sent me an audio message recommending that I download an app which counts calories meticulously. Then she proudly let us know that so far that day, she had only consumed a cappuccino. She was feeling a bit dizzy, she said.
Soon afterwards she sent another message. Apparently, she had to go to a clinic in a few weeks to be treated for depression. "Does anyone have a problem with that?" she asked. The other group members said no and sent endless crying/laughing emojis – they all have or have had depression, they said. They all seemed to be in love with their illnesses, which shocked me but at the same time made me feel bad for spying on them. They were all so excited about driving themselves into anorexia; as if it were the next big festival. Of course, this is part of their illness.
My second day in the group was declared "a day of fasting". When I announced a food binge, the Anas rallied round me.
A little later, the admin asked us to send pictures of ourselves. I was taken aback by the bony teenage girls I saw in the photographs, and the fragility of their minds and bodies, the latter of which they professed to loathe: "I am a fat pig. I want to just cut the fat off my body!" one of them wrote.
According to the American Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, mortality rates are 4 percent for anorexia nervosa, 3.9 percent for bulimia nervosa and 5.2 percent for eating disorders. These pro-ana forums are extremely dangerous because they combine a desire for a perfect body with a teenager's need to belong.
I wish I could sit with each of these girls and explain to them that they're on a deadly path. But just before I'd decided to leave the group, the admin shut it down at the behest of her mum, who'd sent her to a clinic.