"At 5 foot 3, Allie was anything but obese, but she wanted to drop down to 82 pounds. Rather than go on Jenny Craig, she joined an online contest called the Mary Kate Challenge -- named for the Olsen twin who famously suffered from anorexia."
The Vanishing Act
Inside the secret world of girls who are proud to be anorexic.
By Rebecca Meiser
Article Published Aug 30, 2006
Looking at herself in the mirror, Allie DeForest was digusted by what she saw: a flabby stomach, tree-trunk thighs, and handfuls of errant flesh.
She was 107 pounds of pure fat. There was no way she could start her freshman year at Cleveland State looking like this.
At 5 foot 3, Allie was anything but obese, but she wanted to drop down to 82 pounds. Rather than go on Jenny Craig, she joined an online contest called the Mary Kate Challenge -- named for the Olsen twin who famously suffered from anorexia.
The rules of the contest were simple: If she consumed 750 calories a day -- less than half the recommended allotment for someone of her size -- she'd get one point. If she cut another 150 calories, she'd earn two more points. Shave it down to 500 calories -- less than one-third of what doctors recommend -- she'd score five. And if she managed to starve herself the whole day, she'd get 10 points. Bonuses would be awarded for vigorous exercise and consumption of diet pills. The girl who scored the most points would win.
Growing up in Shaker Heights, Allie had been a self-described "on-and-off anorexic" since high school, but now she cut her food intake to almost nothing. Her daily diet consisted of apple juice, green tea, and coffee.
After several days of starving, Allie grew frustrated that other girls were shedding weight faster, so she dropped out. But the experience taught her a valuable lesson.
"I realized I could survive for days and days without food," she says. "And once I realized that, I knew I was stronger than the rest of the population."
Soon, Allie was spending hours a day on the internet, gathering diet tips from a network of anorexic girls around the country. They taught her ways to hide her disease: Drink from opaque cups -- that way, you can spit out your food, and no one will notice.
To stay motivated, the anorexics e-mailed each other what they called "thinspiration": pictures of skeletal-looking celebrities. They forwarded each other reminders that "starving hurts, but it works."
For Allie, the camaraderie encouraged her to try ever more dangerous crash diets.
"Today was good until the end," she wrote in her online diary last October. "i binged. i had a small piece of pizza and a cheeseburger . . . i was so mad i was puking up blood and stuff so i think all of the crap is gone but just to be safe i took double the normal dose of laxatives."
Sensing that Allie was at her weakest, her online friends rallied to her side.
"Im really, really proud of you for making it 40 hours. that's awesome!" one girl wrote. "Think about how great that is and how you can fast tomorrow . . . i think you're doing great so don't be depressed."
When she blogged the next day about starting a water-only fast, five girls volunteered to join her in solidarity.
A few days later, Allie blogged again to thank her fellow anorexics for their support.
"Love you girls," she wrote. "I can't express how much this site means to me."
Anorexics and bulimics have gathered in online communities since the mid-'90s. Members of these clubs proudly call themselves pro-ana (short for anorexia) or pro-mia (short for bulimia).
While most pro-ana sites warn about the possible dangers of the lifestyle, they also offer tips on how to do it better: "Mix a tablespoon of mustard with a glass of water and drink it before you purge," one post offers. Advises another: "Eat two or three toilet paper tissues with a tall 8 oz. glass of water. This acts as a natural laxative."
"It's like a cult," says Lynn Grefe, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association. "It's a cult to encourage people to stay sick."
In 2001, the mainstream media caught wind of the pro-ana websites and offered typically sensationalistic coverage. Katie Couric and Oprah Winfrey hosted specials on the subject.
That rallied the attention of concerned parents, who barraged Yahoo, AOL, and other servers with e-mails, demanding that the pro-ana sites be shut down. The servers complied, blocking pro-anorexia sites en masse.
But by then, the sites had already found a dedicated niche audience. According to a recent study of eating-disorder patients, 40 percent admitted to checking out the sites.
"Clearly, they visited them for a reason," says Stanford medical student Jenny Wilson, who co-authored the study. "Anecdotally, we found that a lot of people in the study felt alienated from the community and that people didn't understand where they were coming from. These sites filled that void."
Faced with recrimination from the outside world, the pro-ana girls went underground. There are currently hundreds of pro-eating-disorder groups spread over all the most popular social-networking sites, including Xanga, MySpace, and Live Journal. Many require new users to submit photos to moderators to prove they're anorexic.
"These girls are supporting anorexia as a lifestyle choice and not as an illness," says Caitlin Scafati, a recovering anorexic and bulimic from Santa Monica. "The way the websites are set up, they're anti-treatment. No one there believes that it's really going to kill you."
Growing up in Broadview Heights, Anna Solis was always the thinnest girl in all her classes. She took pride in her pipe-cleaner legs and flat-as-a-map stomach.
But when Anna was in ninth grade, puberty set in, causing her hips to widen and chest to grow. She felt chubby and her clothes were a little snug. She vowed to diet until she reached her junior high school weight.
Anna started slowly, skipping one meal a day. But when the weight didn't fall off as quickly as she'd hoped, she cut back to one meal a day.
Her arms looked like pencils and her stomach appeared concave, and she thought she looked just great -- though she believed she could afford to lose a few more pounds.
Her sister didn't agree. "You have a problem," she said. "You need help."
Anna got scared and went online looking for help. She found "Real Thin," an eating-disorder community on Live Journal.
At first, Anna posted messages asking for advice on how to get better. The girls responded in kind, telling her to go see a psychiatrist, check herself into a hospital, and eat a more balanced diet. They warned her to stay away from these sites. They were for girls who weren't ready to recover.
But Anna couldn't stay away. Looking at the pictures that the others posted of really thin girls, Solis felt a competitive drive stir within her. She could be thinner than that. She started planning her diet for the next day: coffee, cigarettes, green tea . . .
As the days passed, and Solis felt herself growing weak and dizzy, she vowed to stay away from the pro-ana websites. But she couldn't resist.
"I said to myself, 'Okay, I'm just going to stay online for, like, five minutes.' Then I'd end up being there for two to three hours," she says.
Within a few months, Anna's brittle frame had been whittled down to 85 pounds. Her spinal cord was ridged and knobby; her shoulder blades protruded like wings.
"People in my online community really dig bones -- from hipbones to collarbones to ribs and really skinny legs," Solis says.
As she spiraled deeper into illness, Anna discovered the darker side of the pro-ana sites. Girls deride each other for not being thin enough. If they can't fit into little-girl sizes, they're called "wannarexics." And if girls still get their periods -- losing the ability to menstruate is a symptom of anorexia -- they're referred to derisively as "ed-nos" -- Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. "It's not the same thing as anorexia," Solis explains.
Anna's online friends traded pictures of each other rather than of celebrities, because it showed that real girls can get thin. Anna achieved some level of anorexic celebrity herself when pro-ana groups began circulating a picture of her face for "thinspiration." Anna was so devoid of fat that you could actually see her cheek muscles working.
In the summer of 2004, Anna left for college in the Philippines, where her loneliness and her boy problems drove her to drop even more pounds.
Over summer break, Anna's friends at home saw how much weight she'd lost and became worried. Her mother took her to a psychiatrist, but that didn't help. "I took psychology. I wasn't going to be fooled," Anna says.
When her mother wouldn't let her leave the table unless she finished her dinner, Anna simply ate the food and threw it up later. Then she went to her website and blogged about her friends and family being mean to her.
In the winter of 2005, Anna was sitting in the front seat of her friend's car when everything started to go blurry. She passed out. When she woke up, her friends fed her water and food, which she promptly spat out. "I didn't want the calories," she says.
But when the blackouts started happening more frequently -- a few times a month -- she got scared. "I started thinking, maybe I have to gain weight," Anna says.
Her first step was quitting the pro-ana websites. Soon after she signed off, she began to follow a healthier regimen. Six months later, she's up to 95 pounds. Her face looks less gray and more robust, as if she's just returned from a day at the beach.
But Anna hasn't gone back online to tell her former friends about her recovery. She's afraid of what they'd say -- and what she might do, she says. "I think that if I go back, I'll be sucked into that whole world again."
At 15, Shannon Bonnette was in the deepest throes of anorexia.
The shy blond girl with doe eyes and toothpick arms just wanted to disappear. It seemed as if the world was falling apart around her. And the worst part was, she couldn't do a damn thing about it. So she turned to the one thing she could control: food.
"I remember thinking, Okay, starting tomorrow, I'm just going to stop eating," Shannon says.
She skipped breakfast and dinner, and exercised compulsively. When she didn't see the results she wanted, she eliminated lunch too. In three months, the 5-foot-7 girl went from 128 pounds to 100.
One day, a year later, Shannon noticed her heartbeat fluttering. It was beating so rapidly that it felt like a canary trying to escape its cage.
She was rushed to the emergency room. Doctors told her she was suffering from an irregular heartbeat due to an electrolyte imbalance caused by her anorexia.
Worried for her health, Shannon tried to eat better. But at 19, she went off to Penn State. Classes were tough, and Shannon was struggling. Before long, she had gone right back to her old coping mechanism.
Anorexia permeated every aspect of her life. During the day, she would run for hours between classes, trying to burn off every last calorie. At night, she had nightmares in which she dreamed she'd accidentally polished off a six-pack of Ensure.
"I'd awaken frantically, race to my kitchen, and check everything to make sure I had not actually eaten something in my sleep," she says.
By the end of her sophomore year, Shannon had dropped to 92 pounds. She looked like a living corpse. "I'm surprised I didn't drop dead," she says.
Recognizing that she had a problem, she scheduled an appointment with a school counselor and an eating-disorder support group. Neither suited her.
Next, she tried joining support groups on the internet. But the moderators on the site wouldn't let her post messages about weight, calories, or food.
"I was suffering from an eating disorder; what the hell else was I supposed to write about?" Shannon says. "I didn't have anything else in my life."
So she started keeping an online journal, writing her worst thoughts and fears about the disease. In the spring of 2000, Shannon decided to see whether other people were blogging about their struggles with eating disorders. She typed "anorexia" into a search engine and came across her first pro-anorexia site.
At first she was disgusted. But the more she looked, the more she recognized herself. The girls wrote about the highs they felt after a long fast and the self-hatred they felt when they ate a French fry. They wrote about lying to families and friends, and the guilt they felt inside.
"These posts were kind of a verbalization of what was going on in my head," Shannon says.
Every morning before class, Shannon read all the new messages and responded with comments of her own. After class, she rushed home to read what others had written in her absence. Her weight stabilized for the first time in years.
"I can honestly say these sites saved my life," she says.
But a year later, Shannon came to a startling conclusion: No one else was getting better. Every day, she read the same posts from the same people with the same problems.
"I cared about these people, but I wanted to scream at them, 'If you aren't getting anywhere, something has to change! You have to change it!'" she says.
In the fall of 2001, Shannon's web server shut her website down, claiming that it was "pro-anorexic" and "dangerous." Steamed, Shannon started an online petition to keep other servers from blacklisting anorexia posts wholesale.
"Everyone was trying to shove the disease back in the corner, to make it a secret again, as if that was going to solve the problem," Shannon says. "The truth is that anorexia is not pretty; dealing with it is not pretty. But that doesn't mean you should just shut down things you don't like or can't understand."
Now 28, Shannon is recovered and lives a quiet life with her two children and husband in Conneaut, a quaint lakeside community 45 minutes outside Cleveland. When she's not caring for her toddlers, she finds time to respond to e-mails from girls who write seeking advice on their own eating disorders.
"No website is going to create an eating disorder," she says. "The desire's got to be there already. It's not something that just comes out of thin air."
By January 2006 -- six months after the Mary Kate Challenge -- Allie weighed 105 pounds, but still didn't think she was thin enough.
She decided to start her own weight-loss challenge. As the moderator of the contest, she wanted to set a good example. So for five days, she went without eating a single thing. It was her longest fast ever.
But rather than feeling triumphant, Allie felt scared. She was dizzy and light-headed. She came close to passing out. Her boyfriend was freaked out. He demanded that she get professional help.
Allie decided that her life was more important than the opinions of the pro-ana girls online. She confessed her problems to her friends. She sought counseling. She got better.
Several months later, on March 14, Allie logged onto her Xanga site for the very last time.
"I'm through with this," she wrote. "I'm sooo sick of lying to everyone. I've recovered, I'm eating regularly, most of the time. I know I will still struggle but this whole ana/mia thing is sooo high school, I'm ready to move past it. To those of y'all still struggling, I hope you can find the strength to move on like I did."
there are a few pics on the site too.