boston.com Your Life your connection to The Boston Globe

In online setting, a cult of anorexia finds affirmation

LOS ANGELES -- An underground subculture of teenage girls who bond over their eating disorders and glorify bone-thin celebrities has surfaced on the Internet, in a growing trend that specialists say frustrates treatment.

The girls share near-starvation diets in Web journals and offer tips for denying hunger pangs or dodging the suspicions of family members. They discuss extreme calorie restriction or weight loss through laxatives, diet pills, or induced vomiting. And they post ''thinspiration" pictures of their idols, such as supermodel Kate Moss and the 18-year-old Olsen twins.

In fact, Mary-Kate Olsen, who with her sister Ashley is the face of a multimillion-dollar American brand catering to young girls, has become a top icon in the Web communities since spending six weeks in a Utah clinic for an eating disorder earlier this year.

''I found little pictures of Mary-Kate and I'm posting them all over my room and in my backpack and my purse and my car and everywhere, so I am always reminded of her strength. Hopefully, it will keep me in check," a college sophomore named Emma writes in her Web journal while considering a three-week fast broken only by soup on every third day.

A spokesman for Mary-Kate Olsen said the actress has focused on her recovery, not Web chatter. She has not spoken publicly about her disorder and has returned to college.

''She's not trolling these sites, so I'm not sure how aware she is of how she's being presented," Michael Pagnotta said. ''There's a lot of controversy over some of these sites, but when you're a public person you can't be responsible" for them.

Specialists on eating disorders say the sites are particularly dangerous for anorexics, who strongly resist admitting a problem and cling to their illness to avoid dealing with its psychological underpinnings.

''These sites really promote the idea that eating disorders are a good thing and thrive off the denial part of the disorder," said Edi Cook, an eating disorder specialist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Beverly Hills.

She said the websites are changing the culture surrounding eating disorders, making them more acceptable to girls. The Harvard Eating Disorders Center estimates that 3 percent of adolescent women and girls have anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorders.

Specialists say with eating disorders focus on their bodies in a misguided bid to resolve deeper psychological issues, thinking they can fix their inner troubles by achieving a ''perfect" outside. They equate nearly skeletal thinness with perfection.

Kate, a 19-year-old student who is anorexic, contributes to a Web journal for college-age women with eating disorders. She weighs 98 pounds, up from a low of 90.

''It's a lonely disorder, really," she said. ''None of my friends have it, and they wouldn't understand the thought processes behind it. I think I could definitely become very depressed if I didn't have these girls talk to. It's a big part of my life."

Kate uses a photograph of Mary-Kate Olsen as her Web icon and keeps a calendar of the twins on her dorm wall. She identifies with Mary-Kate, has followed her eating disorder struggle, and acknowledges envy over the images that found their way onto the Internet.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES