With so many social and cultural pressures defining how the physical body is expected to look, sometimes individuals feel the need to go to extreme measures to meet these socially constructed images of "beauty". Compounding the issue is the creation and existence of websites that promote unhealthy images of the human body. These websites suggest and promote methods for individuals to strive for skinnier and/or more muscular and defined bodies by using techniques that are physically and psychologically dangerous (McGee et al., 2005). In a study by Peebles et al. (2012) researchers conducted a cross-sectional, Internet based survey of 1291 respondents struggling with an eating disorder (ED). They found the more individuals with an ED visit pro eating disorder (pro-ED) websites the higher their chances of disordered eating (2012, p. 12). Amount of time spent and usage of these pro-ED sites has also been associated with "... younger age at dieting onset, various disordered eating behaviors, and most harmful post-website use activities, such as diet pill use, weight loss techniques, or self-injury" (2012, p. 12). Unfortunately these websites may be appealing to those struggling with an ED, as some individuals may feel they provide a safe place to interact with others in a non-judgmental setting (Dias, 2003). These websites are abundant and free for anyone of any age to access if they only have an Internet connection available.
I decided to find one of the first websites that would appear when using a major search engine using the term "lose weight fast". In the top ten suggested sites, I came across one called Now Loss, a dot-com website (Now Loss, n.d.).The image that first appeared as the main page of the website loaded, with a section entitled "Click to Look Perfect". The concept of making one's body look "perfect" is at the core of some eating disorders, creating an unrealistic goal and drive for many individuals. The physical repercussions are only the surface symptoms for many individuals, as there is evidence showing that those who meet DSM-5 criteria for many eating disorders are at greater risk of psychiatric disorders, suicide ideations, and functional impairment (Keel, Brown, & Holm-Denoma, 2011; Peebles et al., 2012). Websites that promote behaviors consistent with those typical in individuals with an ED make it even more difficult for professionals and advocates to battle such a prevalent issue. The website I researched, Nowloss.com, promoted fasting for up to two days a week, eating well under the recommended minimum daily calorie intake suggested by most physicians and related professionals, eating large meals in order to not eat at later times, and is riddled with images of "perfect" bodies -- many of which appear altered using a photography program (Now Loss, n.d.). These images present rare body types to strive for and the suggested eating schedules that are not conducive to typical eating patterns in truly healthy individuals. Being skinny does not represent being healthy.
The images of "perfect" bodies provide a goal body type for many individuals with and without an ED. However the other suggested eating and workout schedules provide an outline of how to develop or how to support an eating disorder. Each type of outlined ED within the DSM-5 has some similar symptoms with other eating disorders and some struggles are unique to specific eating disorders (Stice, Marti, & Rohde, 2013). Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder and anorexia nervosa are both disorders that cause individuals to restrict calorie intake due to fear of adverse effects, such as weight gain or becoming fat (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 338). Many of the outlined eating schedules on the Now Loss website promote calorie intake as low as 500-800 calories per day, which is well below a minimum reccomended level for basic bodily function (Now Loss, n.d.; Castaldo et al., 2015). Many of the eating schedules promoted on the website also suggest eating larger meals at specified intervals in preperation for fasting times or days. These proposed schedules of large calorie meals followed by fasting in order to lose weight or gain muscle mimic criteria outlined for bulimia nervosa in the DSM-5. Two criteria of bulimia nervosa are eating an untypical amount of food within a discrete period of time and fasting (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 345). Excessive exercise is also a clinical criteria for bulimia and other eating disorders, which is another common theme outlined on this website. There are the few disclaimers attached to specific articles in an attempt to present as responsible, but these attempts do not outweigh the obvious support of many unhealthy weight loss suggestions that disregard responsible health behaviors.
Thankfully there are also a number of websites available that are monitored by responsible health professionals, advocates, and organizations. One such site is the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) (Home Page, n.d.). ANAD has a helpline that is clearly posted on their website and a directory of self-help groups that are available to assist those with an eating disorder. The website also promotes and provides information on outpatient programs, day treatment, inpatient treatment and residential services for those struggling with an ED (Get Help, n.d.). NADA acknowledges the importance of expertise from a doctor, therapist, and/or nutritionist, with a disclaimer posted at the bottom of their suggested resources. NADA also holds an annual conference to gather professionals and individuals struggling with ED together to discuss how to progress research, public education, understanding, and treatment of eating disorders. NADA clearly promotes education and professional guidance when addressing eating disorders. The website is not riddled with unrealistic images of "perfect" bodies to create, promote, or trigger unhealthy behaviors, and also lacks judgmental pictures of less than ideal images that can promote further shame and guilt. This is in complete opposition to the Now Loss website that I discussed, and the many other pro-ED websites that currently exist for all to access.
With the availability of information freely distributed across the Internet and media, the influence of social pressure has only increased its reach. An unhealthy obsession with fitness and eating and what some define as "healthy" has become an epidemic. Health is being promoted as muscular males and skinny females with fat in just the right spots. However many body builders and fitness models who abide by these expectations and methods to achieve socially outlined images of "beauty" are extremely unhealthy (Mosley, 2009), taking a severe toll on their bodies. The common social understanding of physical health is distorted, and is in complete contradiction to the medical and scientific definitions of health. Although there are many websites and resources that responsibly discuss, educate, and promote healthy eating habits, they must first deter the attention of a struggling population from irresponsible websites that promote eating disorder behaviors.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Castaldo, G., Palmieri, V., Galdo, G., Castaldo, L., Molettieri, P., Vitale, A., & Monaco, L. (2015). Aggressive nutritional strategy in morbid obesity in clinical practice: Safety, feasibility, and effects on metabolic and haemodynamic risk factors. Obesity research & clinical practice.
Dias, K. (2003). The Ana Sanctuary: Women's pro-anorexia narratives in cyberspace. Journal of International Womens Studies, 4(2), 31-45.
Get Help. (n.d.). National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). Retrieved on July 27, 2015, from www.anad.org
Home Page. (n.d.). National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). Retrieved on July 27, 2015, from www.anad.org
Keel, P. K., Brown, T., Holm-Denoma, J., & Bodell, L. (2011). Comparison of DSM-IV versus proposed DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for eating disorders: Reduction of eating disorder not-otherwise specified and validity. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 44, 553–560.
McGee, B. J., Hewitt, P. L., Sherry, S. B., Parkin, M., & Flett, G. L. (2005). Perfectionistic self-presentation, body image, and eating disorder symptoms. Body Image, 2, 29–40.
Mosley, P. E. (2009). Bigorexia: bodybuilding and muscle dysmorphia.European Eating Disorders Review, 17(3), 191-198.
Now Loss. (n.d.) Retrieved online July 27, 2015 from www.nowloss.com
Peebles, R., Wilson, J. L., Litt, I. F., Hardy, K. K., Lock, J. D., Mann, J. R., & Borzekowski, D. (2012). Disordered eating in a digital age: Eating behaviors, health, and quality of life in users of websites with pro-eating disorder content. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 14(5), 305–320.
Stice, E., Marti, C., & Rohde, P. P. (2013). Incidence, impairment, and course of the proposed DSM-5 eating disorder diagnoses in an 8-year prospective community study of young women. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122(2), 445–457.