An underground movement that promotes self-starvation has an almost cult-like appeal to followers, mainly young women and teens who suffer from anorexia.
CHICAGO – They call her ”Ana.” She is a role model to some, a goddess to others — the subject of drawings, prayers and even a creed.
She tells them what to eat and mocks them when they don’t lose weight. Yet, while she is a very real presence in the lives of many of her followers, she exists only in their minds.
Ana is short for anorexia, and — to the alarm of experts — many who suffer from the potentially fatal eating disorder are part of an underground movement that promotes self-starvation and, in some cases, has an almost cult-like appeal.
Followers include young women and teens who wear red Ana bracelets and offer one another encouraging words of ”thinspiration” on Web pages and blogs.
They share tips for shedding pounds and faithfully report their ”cw” and ”gw” — current weight and goal weight, which often falls into the double digits.
The movement has flourished on the Web, and eating disorder experts say that, despite attempts to limit Ana’s online presence, it has now grown to include followers in many parts of the world.
No one knows just how many of the estimated 8 million to 11 million Americans afflicted with eating disorders have been influenced by the pro-Ana movement. But experts fear its reach is fairly wide.
Experts say the Ana movement also plays on the tendency that people with eating disorders have toward “all or nothing thinking.”
”When they do something, they tend to pursue it to the fullest extent. In that respect, Ana may almost become a religion for them,” said Carmen Mikhail, director of the eating disorders clinic at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.
People with eating disorders who have been involved in the movement confirm its cult-like feel.
”People pray to Ana to make them skinny,” said Sara, a 17-year-old in Columbus, Ohio, who was an avid organizer of Ana followers until she recently entered treatment for her eating disorder. She spoke on condition that her last name not be used.
Among other things, Sara was the self-proclaimed president of Beta Sigma Kappa, dubbed the official Ana sorority and ”the most talked about, nearly illegal group” on a popular blog hosting service that Sara still uses to communicate with friends.
She also had an online Ana ”boot camp” and told girls what they could and couldn’t eat.
”I guess I was attention-starved,” she now says of her motivation. “But then I realized I was helping girls kill themselves.”
For others, Ana is a person — a voice that directs their every move when it comes to food and exercise.
”She’s someone who’s perfect. It’s different for everyone — but for me, she’s someone who looks totally opposite to the way I do,” said Kasey Brixius, a 19-year-old college student from Hot Springs, S.D.
To Brixius — athletic with brown hair and brown eyes — Ana is a wispy, blue-eyed blonde. ”I know I could never be that,” she said, “but she keeps telling me that if I work hard enough, I can be that.”
Dr. Mae Sokol often treats young patients in her Omaha, Neb., practice who personify their eating disorder beyond just Ana. To them, bulimia is ”Mia.” And an eating disorder often becomes “Ed.”