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I first heard about “wannarexia” while sitting on the bus. A group of teenage girls on their way into central London to go shopping were dissecting each of their classmates. One girl in particular received marked censure. “She's such a wannarexic,” said one. The others all agreed. Forced to admit that I was out of the loop with teen jargon I turned to the internet, the bible of youth trends.
Wannarexia is a pejorative term and, says Urban Dictionary (www.urbandictionary.com), is “an imaginary disease most commonly found amongst preteen to teenage, overweight females who claim to have the eating disorder anorexia, but they do not meet the criteria.” It continues, “In fact, they do not have an eating disorder at all. Most wannarexic people feel that anorexia is a ‘quick fix' to lose weight and that it is glamorous.”
Wannarexia is the latest word to come from the fast paced world of eating disorder terminology. Although the internet has allowed genuine supportive communities to flourish among individuals isolated by their disorder, it has propagated subgroups and heated discussions between the “real sufferers” and the “fakers.” One result is the “pro-ana” and “pro-mia” craze, which sees anorexia and bulimia as lifestyle choices rather than as illnesses that are difficult to control.
Initially, many web servers took down pro-ana and pro-mia sites, but with the emergence of social networking sites they have reappeared. Facebook recently ran into trouble for refusing to remove links to pro-anorexia sites, and mainstream sites such as YouTube and MySpace have come under fire for featuring “thinspiration” videos, which show unhealthily thin girls offering tips on how to lose weight. One group on MySpace with over 1000 members says: “No people trying to recover. It ruins our motivation.”
Wannarexics draw anger and derision from people who actually do have anorexia and bulimia. Community websites for genuinely anorexic and bulimic people have hit back by setting up sites offering advice to those trying to “develop anorexia,” saying that they don't want their “warped perspectives and dangerous behaviour to affect others.” One such website, Anorexic's Advice—so called to target wannarexics trawling the internet for tips—features startling videos and photos of people with anorexia in an attempt to debunk the myth that it's a glamorous disorder that makes people popular.
Videos and blogs mocking wannarexics have appeared on YouTube, with advice on how to “spot one.” They suggest that far from being a hidden problem “wannarexics” are out and proud with their “disorder.” People openly refer to each other as “ana” or “mia” and wear red or purple wrist bands to identify each other. Their main icon is Mary Kate Olsen, a wealthy and glamorous American actress who allegedly has anorexia, generating the motivational expression “WWMKD?”—what would Mary Kate do?
One blogger offers advice on Urban Dictionary: “No treatment is possible to convince people suffering from wannarexia that they are not anorexic, unless the treatment includes brain replacement.” Another has the last word on the trend: “Wannarexics aren't as bad as wannacutters,” she says.