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Lossing Weight / May 13, 2017

Websites that promote eating disorders are on the rise. In this warped online world, anorexia is not a disease but a lifestyle. With users getting younger, and the lengths they go to starve themselves more extreme, experts say the only way to understand this community - and lure them out - is to delve inside it

I got diagnosed with my eating disorder at the age of nine. I remember playing tag in the schoolyard with my friends and running around because I wanted to lose weight. I remember throwing out food in class. When celebrating my birthday, I never wanted a cake; I wanted healthy snacks and told everybody that I didn’t like sweets. By the age of 10, I had already invented lies about food allergies. I became a vegetarian and decided that I wasn’t allowed sugar.

The disgust I felt towards my body developed during a period of abuse. I was sexually abused by a family member from the age of five. It lasted until I was 12 and it has made me hate my body. I find it impossible to live with my body, so I have always tried to separate myself from it. Starving myself is a way to make it disappear, to vanish, to clean, purify and punish it.

I am very open about my anorexia. I know that I am insanely skinny. I gave up hiding it when I was 16. Before that, I did crazy things. I purged my food, I hid it in my sleeves. I put breadcrumbs on my plate to make it look like I had eaten. Now, whenever I stop eating, I just tell everyone I’m on a diet again. And people around me, they accept it. They have to.

his is Jade’s story. Jade is 24 and lives in the North East. Although she studied social work at university but is now unemployed, “because of the obvious”. Instead, Jade runs a website. She set it up when she was 14 and has thousands of followers around the world. At the top of the front page is a red banner with a white ribbon, which reads: “Anorexia is a lifestyle, not a disease”.

Jade calls herself an “ana veteran”. Her aim is to provide “tips, tricks and information” for others who, like her, are in the grip of an eating disorder. She posts her thoughts on calorie-counting, coping with hairloss and malnutrition, avoiding the “temptation” of food and how to conceal your eating disorder. Her readers, she says, are “girls who are desperate in their anorexia and willing to do anything to lose weight. They are sick, but they don’t see it as an illness. I’ve been anorexic for 10 years and I know this is the way I want to live.”

Her attitude is chilling. Instead of urging her readers to stop starving themselves, to seek help and recover, Jade helps - and often encourages - them to embrace their eating disorder, like she does. “I eat three meals a day but make sure I never take in more than 50 calories, ” she writes in one post. “I eat some lettuce and season it with a lot of pepper and salt.” Another boasts: “I’ve reached a point where I can go without food for three or four days and I am able to live my life with no problems. You can do it too, but it will take discipline and hard work.”

The replies - many of them anonymous, all from strangers - are equally unsettling. “I’m new to this, I need tips and I don’t want to lose my hair, ” pleads one follower of the site. “I’m 12 - going to be 13 soon.” Another has written: “Need help to keep me from bingeing and overeating after a long period of starvation.”

Yet Jade is defensive about what she does. “My visitors are my girls and I have a lot of personal contact with them, ” she explains. “I do not lead them in a path of destruction, as it might seem. The moment anorexia does not work for them, I support each and every one to their own personal path of recovery.” In the past, she has talked about making parts of her website private, so that only “genuine” eating disorder sufferers can have access, and “you don’t get stupid fat jealous b*****s stalking you” - but, for the moment, it remains open to anyone who knows how to Google.

hough Jade’s remarks are shocking, they are far from unique. She is part of a growing international group of “pro-ana” (anorexia) and “pro-mia” (bulimia) bloggers, who perceive their illness as a “lifestyle” and urge others to do the same. Communities that glamorise eating disorders have been around for decades, but Jade’s is part of a worrying new generation of personal blogs and social network users who have turned anorexia and bulimia into something an aspirational state.

Of the 1.6 million people in the UK who are affected by an eating disorder, around two-thirds will have visited “how-to” sites such as hers. Last month, as data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre revealed an 8 per cent rise in hospital admissions for eating disorders in 2013, campaigners blamed these websites for the surge, warning that they are “fetishising” a serious mental illness and putting young people’s lives in danger. This weekend, experts also warned of a "silent epidemic" of anorexia that is sweeping through Britain's top independent schools, affecting thousands of teenage girls. Today marks the start of Eating Disorders Awareness Week - and charities are focusing on the sites that promote this behaviour, demanding that something is done to control them.

“We’re concerned about their toxicity but the more they are discussed, the more people tend to look for them, ” he explains. “It’s like giving talks in schools on the issue - one or two will go and starve themselves afterwards. We want healthcare professionals to be aware of the negative sites, but discourage sufferers from searching for them. There’s a paradox: we’re worried but we don’t know what to do.”

Doing anything is made more difficult by the fact that this material is online - and the internet is impossible to police. Last year, the social networking sites Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram tried to ban “thinspiration” photographs - images designed to motivate weightloss - but to no avail. They are still populated with pictures of skinny models and actresses, flaunting protruding ribs and “thigh gaps”, simply posted under different names. These are the same pictures frequently used on pro-ana and pro-mia websites. Any attempt to ban or regulate their existence would only send their users elsewhere.