Ruth, an anorexic, is an emergency room doctor who sips 90 calories of chicken broth in between patients in order to keep her electrolytes level—and to keep from passing out. When she really gets hungry, she looks at “food porn” or pictures of food she wants to eat, but can’t, by searching Google Images. And she’s not the only doctor who frequents here.
Ruth’s knowledge doesn’t keep her from engaging in disordered behavior; it helps her perfect it.
“I know I should know better,” she says. “I take precautions.”
And she shares those precautions with other members of her online community.
“If there is a healthier, or less dangerous, way of—and I know this sounds bad—of starving yourself,” she says, “I feel I have an obligation to tell them. It’s no different than giving a clean needle to a drug addict; you do what’s best in the moment, and some of these girls are very young and very naïve, and they will take chances that could end up killing them. That’s when I step in.”
And because so many members are successful students and professionals who are otherwise self-sufficient, those closest to them are often clueless. Many of the adults here have been hiding their disorders since their early teens.
“I go online after my husband falls asleep, and I always keep a second window open on the screen, so if he does wake up I just have to minimize what I don’t want him to see,” says Sarah.
In high school, when Sarah’s eating disorder began, she says she would cut class and just eat all day.
“I would go drive through every fast food joint in a 5-mile radius of my school and eat until I couldn’t breathe,” she says. “Then I would hate myself. And then I would go to this dumpster behind a CVS to get rid of all the wrappers before someone saw them.”
Sarah says back then she would binge, but not purge by vomiting. She would fast for days after the binge in an effort to “purify” her body.
“Then I’d get so hungry I’d do it all over again,” she says. “It became this vicious, shameful cycle, one that I was good at hiding.”
Despite binging and purging once per day, Caitlyn, a pre-law student, doesn’t believe she has a problem at all. “It’s a bad habit. It’s not a good thing, but neither is smoking.”
After being a member of the site for four years and showing she was a responsible member, Caitlyn was chosen to be a moderator.
Moderators are like managers on the site. They censor discussions that give away dangerous tips. They break up arguments and arrange meet-ups for members. Three times a year hundreds of members from Caitlyn’s site meet in California, New York and London. Some come from other countries to attend them.
“Does that sound crazy?” she asks. “These women are my family. They have helped me through some of the most difficult times of my life.”
Caitlyn, 19, comes off as a completely together, confident and happy young woman. In one post she is helping another member with Calculus homework, in another she is talking a member through a breakup, and coaching another girl about why “dying young, thin and pretty” isn’t actually better than dying “old and fat.” But in another comment, Caitlyn sounds like a completely different person.
Posts like “How many calories will you burn giving blood?” “What did you binge on today?” or “What was your most embarrassing eating disorder moment?” are common around here and Caitlyn addresses the last one.
She recalls sitting in a classroom next to her friend, who has no clue she has “food issues.” Like Sarah, Caitlyn doesn’t ever use the words “eating disorder.”
“I don’t like saying that,” she says. “Maybe because I don’t think I really have one sometimes.”
Caitlyn says her friend was complaining about a smell in the room, when Caitlyn realized it was her.
She had dried vomit underneath her fingernails.
“Hey, things happen!” she jokingly says in the post.
There are more than 30 replies to “embarrassing eating disorder moments.”
In another post Caitlyn worries about her teeth, after an older member says she has to have a bunch of her teeth pulled, even though she had only purged for a few months years ago. She says the dentist told her it was malnutrition that caused her teeth to rot and posts a picture of her teeth, a combination of yellow, brown and black stubs.
With holiday celebrations, games, contests and chat rooms included in the forum, and at least one hundred people available to speak to at any given time with only the click of a mouse, it is easy for relationships to form and personal information to be shared. And there are tight bonds here.
“Being here makes me feel less disgusting,” says Andy, a 17-year-old girl who has been both anorexic and bulimic for the past three years. “There’s this camaraderie that you form here, just by knowing you are not alone with your disorder.”
Jessie, 16, is a member of a different, but similar support site. Her profile is a normal teenager’s profile. Her favorite band is The Killers. Her favorite TV show is CSI. Her picture gallery is filled with photos from her birthday and her last vacation, and a cheerleading photo.
At first, she looks like a happy, healthy and popular teenager. But scroll down a little bit further and there are pictures of her arms with seven fresh 2-inch slices from her wrist to her elbow on top of older healed up scars.
Jessie has been binging, purging and starving herself for years and maintains a healthy—a word that makes her cringe—weight for her height. She started cutting herself with an X-Acto knife she had for a school project, as punishment for eating too many calories. Then, she says, it just became a habit.
She says her eating habits are normal, but are in no way an eating disorder because she doesn’t fit the profile of an anorexic or bulimic as spelled out in the DSM. She, too, still gets her period and isn’t underweight. “And I look fine,” she says.
The cutting, she says, is a problem, but one she can live with.
“Some people bite their nails when they are stressed…. It’s not a big deal but it makes getting dressed in the morning hard sometimes.”
Jessie says no one knows about her cutting—not uncommon among those with eating disorders—but she has had a few close calls, like when she was taking a math test in school.
“I was halfway through, and then I see red coming through my sleeve, and I quickly ran out of the classroom and got my sweater to put on over it.” she says. “I told the teacher I thought I was going to be sick.”
Jessie, who always wears long-sleeved shirts as part of her Catholic high school uniform, has been visiting an eating-disorder support site for years. She met her best friend there. They exchange Christmas and birthday gifts each year.
“My friends at home, they don’t get me anymore, and we grew apart,” she says. “I have more in common with the people I meet here. They understand and don’t judge me like everyone else.”
And understanding brings comfort in the simplest forms. Members of these communities can appreciate how ironic the clothing brand “a.n.a.” is. And the volumizing shampoo called “Binge.” They will usually know the words to obscure songs like Queen Adreena’s “My Silent Undoing,” Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ “Me and Mia,” and Jill Sobule’s “Lucy at the Gym.” They will probably even get how ridiculous the makeup on the actress who plays the anorexic girl in A Secret Between Friends is. They will know that Mad Men star Christina Hendricks first played a bulimic girl in the movie Hunger Point. They get inside humor like “I had three fingers for dessert,” and answer “lol” instead of “wtf.”
And, although they probably weren’t born when it was made, they’ve probably watched parts of Kate’s Secret on YouTube and laughed about how stereotypical ’80s it is, or cried reading Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted because it’s so real to them.
They also most likely will know that products—like diet sodas and mustard—can legally be labeled as having zero calories if they contain less than five calories per serving. Or that a red string around another girl’s wrist can mean they have something in common that in no way involves Kabbalah.
But for some former members now in recovery, they feel that having so many people with the same problem together is a bad thing, whether they are exchanging dangerous tips or not.