To help combat their influence, it is essential to understand these sources and to learn how to dismantle their unhealthy and unhelpful messages.
What Does It Mean to Be ‘Pro Anorexia’?
Pro-anorexia content is content that reinforces the misconceptions people with anorexia nervosa have about their bodies. It might:
- Encourage people to be thin or lose weight
- Provide tips for how to “achieve the perfect body”
- Show support for unhealthy behaviors or thoughts, i.e. not eating for an entire day
- Shame people with other body types or eating habits
These sites, videos, and memes also tend to spread misinformation that is harmful to people with anorexia nervosa, and could serve to further alienate them from loved ones who show concern for their condition.
Unintentional ‘Pro-Ana’ Content
Even when a YouTube video, blog, or website doesn’t set out to spread pro-anorexia content, they could unintentionally champion messages that reinforce pro-ana ideas.
For example, some blogs about dieting or “healthy eating” may focus on achieving a certain body type. They may present this body type as the “ultimate” goal or depict it as an achievement everyone should strive for, regardless of their weight, shape, size, history, or happiness.
This could reinforce the ideas someone who struggles with AN has about working to achieve the “perfect body.”
Where Does ‘Pro Anorexia’ Content Come From?
Pro-ana content can come from a number of different sources, including:
- Other people struggling with eating disorders who may have distorted views about the “right” way to live
- Well-intentioned but misinformed outsiders
- People who are simply willing to profit from content that is popular among those with anorexia nervosa, even when that content is inaccurate and dangerous
A notable gray area is online communities for people with anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders.
These forums are often presented as safe spaces for people to discuss issues related to their conditions. This can help people feel less alone, support one another in a healthy way, and offer advice for making positive life changes.
At the same time, these communities can work to proliferate misinformation about eating disorders, especially if not adequately policed by moderators and admins. They can turn into echo chambers for the unhealthy and unhelpful thoughts of people who still need a lot of help with their recovery process. And unfortunately, that type of attitude can catch on quickly.
Where Do People Find This Information?
Often, a person’s first exposure to pro-anorexia content is on social media.
In fact, as much as 29.3% of all videos on YouTube that touch on the topic of anorexia include at least some type of information that could be considered “pro-ana,” according to one study.  And it’s not uncommon for these pages to gain large followings among people who struggle with AN, which serves to amplify their voices further.
29.3% of YouTube videos that talk about anorexia include pro-ana content. 
Yet sadly, the internet makes this information easy to find, no matter where someone may be looking.
Many websites use algorithms to detect the type of content a user wants. Once someone enters a search term, these programs will “predict” what else a user might want to see based on their own search history and the type of content similar users have been engaging with.
In some cases, even people searching for healthy treatments for anorexia nervosa may be exposed to misinformation and toxic content. The algorithm may detect that they’ve been looking at similar topics as those searching more ‘pro-ana’ content and send them in that unhealthy direction.
Why Is Pro-Anorexia Content So Harmful?
An important concept to remember when thinking about pro-anorexia content is that of the “echo chamber.”
This term describes a common online phenomenon in which people seek out digital spaces that largely reinforce or confirm the ideas they already have and reject or ignore any ideas that may contradict that worldview.
In the case of people with AN, pro-anorexia content allows them to form especially dangerous echo chambers online. Rather than receiving their information from informed, reputable sources, they may be exposed to content that primarily supports what they already believe about their bodies and other unhealthy thoughts and behaviors.
And when someone gets sucked into this type of negative content, it can exacerbate many of the feelings that underpin AN and other eating disorders, including low self-esteem and poor body image.
How to Spot ‘Pro-Ana’ Content
One of the biggest issues of the Internet Age is how notoriously difficult it is to tell the difference between legitimate sources of information and misinformation online. It is not only impossible to police all the content on the internet but equally futile to decide who gets to decide what’s “true.”
Likewise, many schools, businesses, and other institutions have been slow to adopt any online literacy courses. In the meantime, many people must use their best judgment to determine what constitutes helpful, accurate information.
But when it comes to something as potentially life-threatening as anorexia nervosa, this guesswork can be especially dangerous.
One of the best ways to tell a good site from a bad one is to pay attention to its sources.
Scientific studies and established, reputable news sources will likely not only have the most helpful information but offer the most accurate details.
If a piece of content doesn’t cite any sources, you may still be able to get an idea of how trustworthy it is from the main website hosting it.
Some apps or websites have policies against harmful content, including pro-ana videos, memes, and posts. These sites will remove any related content as quickly as possible.
Still, it’s possible for some content to slip through the cracks, even on the most well-intentioned websites. And some pro-ana users will also work around algorithm or moderator searches by intentionally misspelling words, such as “thynspiration” instead of “thinspiration.”
Sadly, it’s nearly impossible to have any type of online experience that isn’t at least partially dictated by predictive algorithms. But it is possible to curb their effect on your social media feed and search results.
YouTube offers the option to turn off autoplay, which can reduce unhealthy suggestions or prevent users from falling down a pro-ana rabbit hole.
Facebook allows users to see “Most Recent” content on their news feeds, which is generally comprised of posts from friends, family, and real people, as opposed to the default “Top Stories” option, which promotes brands and advertising that can be largely tied into predictive algorithms.
It may also be possible to select certain settings on other apps and websites that help reduce the influence the algorithm has on what you see.
Finding Help for Anorexia Nervosa
Still, if you or someone in your life is struggling with anorexia nervosa, no amount of outside content, no matter how accurate, is likely to help.
Often, speaking with a mental health professional is the best course a person can take. These experts will not only know what to say to someone struggling with anorexia nervosa but be able to provide real, accurate, and personalized information for them to find the best help possible.
As anorexia nervosa can be a dangerous or even deadly condition, it’s important to seek help as quickly as possible. Seeing a mental health professional can be the first step on the path to a sustained recovery and a happier and healthier future.
- Syed-Abdul S, Fernandez-Luque L, Jian WS, Li YC, Crain S, Hsu MH, Wang YC, Khandregzen D, Chuluunbaatar E, Nguyen PA, Liou DM. (2013). Misleading health-related information promoted through video-based social media: anorexia on YouTube. Journal of Medical Internet Researc; 15(2):30.