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Experts: Web sites encourage eating disorders

Teens find Internet “support” groups, wear bracelets to reinforce their deadly obsession with anorexia and bulimia.
/ Source: TODAY

Charity bracelets are all the rage these days — yellow for cancer, pink for breast cancer. But out of this rainbow of goodwill a much darker side is emerging, one of bracelets with a very different message. NBC’s Kevin Tibbles reports on a disturbing trend.

Beaded bracelets are now secret symbols of a deadly obsession. They're worn by young people suffering from eating disorders and other destructive behaviors.

“It's a subculture that allows them a sense of connection, shows they belong somewhere,” said Dr. Alexander Sackeyfio of the Beaumont Hospital Eating Disorders Program.

“Only the people that know about it, know that you have an eating disorder,” said Eve Rosenblum, 18, who struggles with anorexia.

Anorexia is characterized by little or no eating, while bulimia is characterized by overeating and then purging.

Rosenblum purchased a $15 bracelet from a Web site, which also sponsors a chat room.

“They understand, they don’t think it's, like, horrible. And they don't think you should get better,” said Rosenblum, who lives in suburban Detroit.

Sufferers have even given themselves nicknames like "ana" for anorexic and "mia" for bulimic.

The bracelets may be just one of many warning signs.

“You worry because the child isn’t eating. You worry because a child doesn't have any friends,” said Sackeyfio. “You worry because a child is becoming more and more isolated.”

The Internet is full of Web sites, like blue dragonfly, which sells red bracelets for anorexia, purple for bulimia, and black-and-blue for self-mutilation. Many of the sites are started by people looking for reinforcement from other sufferers.

Health care professionals say these sites encourage young people to put their lives at risk.

“These sites are not about recovery,” said Lynn Grefe of the National Eating Disorders Association.  “These sites are about reinforcement of an illness, saying ‘Let's be sick together.’ ”

Online visitors get ‘thin-spiration’ — pictures of emaciated women — and advice on how to lose even more weight.

“It's like a cult,” said Grefe. “ ‘Gee, I'm anorexic and so are you and isn't this neat,’ and, in fact, isn't that sick?”

It's a cult with a telltale symbol worn proudly by those who doctors say need help.