Journal of Psychosomatic Research 60 (2006) 253 – 256
Pro-anorexics and recovering anorexics differ in their
Elizabeth J. Lyonsa,T, Matthias R. Mehlb,T, James W. Pennebakerc
aDepartment of Health Behavior and Health Education, University of North Carolina, NC, United States
bDepartment of Psychology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, United States
cDepartment of Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, United States
Objective: Pro-anorexia has emerged as a new and emotionally
positive emotions, less anxiety, a lower degree of cognitive
charged eating disorder phenomenon. This study explored the
reflection, and lower levels of self-directed attention than did
linguistic markers of differences in Internet self-presentation of
recovering anorexics. Pro-anorexics were also more focused on the
self-identified pro-anorexics who defend anorexia as a lifestyle and
present and less on the past. Finally, pro-anorexics were more
self-identified anorexics in recovery. Method: One hundred sixty-
preoccupied with eating and less with school-related issues and
two Internet message board entries and 56 homepages originating
death. Conclusion: Linguistically, pro-anorexics and recovering
from either pro-anorexics or recovering anorexics were analyzed
anorexics engage in distinct psychological self-presentation styles.
for linguistic markers of emotional, cognitive, and social function-
More research is needed to understand the clinical implications of
ing, temporal focus, and anorexia-related psychological concerns.
Results: Across both text sources, pro-anorexics displayed more
D 2006 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Anorexia; Language use; LIWC; Text analysis; Coping
the body and a life ever fastingQ; Although the realprevalence of bpro-anaQ sites is impossible to determine,
Pro-anorexia has received widespread media attention as
their number has been estimated to exceed 500 A
a new and emotionally charged eating disorder phenomenon
concern about these sites is their potential to trigger those on
. Pro-anorexics are individuals who consider anorexia a
the brink of an eating disorder into full-fledged anorexia.
legitimate alternative lifestyle that they choose to have,
Despite media efforts to combat pro-anorexic attitudes,
rather than an illness that they cannot control Their
websites contain pictures of emaciated models, tips for
The purpose of this study was to explore differences in
dieting and how to hide weight loss from parents or doctors,
self-presentation styles of individuals who publicly defend
and community manifestoes such as the bAna CreedQ, a list
anorexia as a lifestyle and individuals who identify
of beliefs that describe what it means to be pro-anorexic
themselves as recovering from anorexia. Methodologically,
(e.g., bI believe in a wholly black and white world, the
we attempted to complement traditional questionnaire-based
losing of weight, recrimination for sins, the abnegation of
assessments by sampling information directly and non-reactively from pro-anorexics’ main communication plat-
B The preparation of this article was aided by the National Institutes of
forms, personal homepages, and message boards Two
text sources, homepages and message boards, were selected
T Corresponding authors. Department of Psychology, University of
to identify self-presentation styles that generalize across
E-mail addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org (E.J. Lyons),
different online media. Pro-anorexics were contrasted
against recovering anorexics as a comparison group to
0022-3999/06/$ – see front matter D 2006 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
E.J. Lyons et al. / Journal of Psychosomatic Research 60 (2006) 253 – 256
Table 1Selected text samples of homepages and message board entries from pro-anorexic and recovering anorexic participants
You can never be too thin. . .at least to me you can’t. People might
I was 10 years old when I began my eating disorder. My life
think it’s disgusting, they might think I’m disgusting because of
was out of control. Weight was the one thing I could control.
Ana. . .but what is it that people are always saying? It doesn’t matter
And I did it well. My parents encouraged me, my friends
what other people think, and be happy with who you are. Well Ana
admired me and my siblings envied me. Losing weight made
is a part of me, and I’m fine with that. Ana makes me happy.
I am the thinnest. The thinnest. This is how my day was yesterday.
I still have days that I want to give up and curl up and die.
I am 5’4 and 51 pounds. Clinically dying; and if that’s what gets
But I will not let myself. I am going to win this war if it
me the thinnest, thinner than every other anorexic, then so be it.
takes my whole 100 years on this damn planet.
I am going to lose 10–15 pounds by 10/11 . . . that’s about a month
How have I been so lucky?! How long will my good luck last?
of fasting, 1 hour on treadmill a day. NO LESS than 200 sit ups a
I’ve never truly feared death through out six hospitalizations
day. 100 leg lifts each leg and each low cal food when needing
and five years of therapy. . .others have told me I look like
energy. Wish me LUCK. 27 days COUNTING DOWN NOW!
death, or that I will die if I continue, but it’s like I feel invisible.
Hey everyone! This site is great. . .but anyway–I’m 5V3W 108 lbs–I
I don’t know if this will work and I’m not sure if I’ll ever get
know, a big fat cow! You guys all have so much will power, how do
better and more often than not I’m not sure if there is anything
you do it? I want to be 99 lbs and can’t seem to lose the weight.
bto get betterQ from, but I don’t know if I can trust my ownjudgment right now either.
better understand how attitudinal factors can affect psycho-
bpro anorexiaQ, bpro anaQ) and by following links from
logical processes that, in turn, may create barriers to
major pro-anorexia sites (e.g., bAnorexic NationQ, bFat
successful anorexia treatment. Recovering anorexics were
Like MeQ, bBloody Brick RoadQ). A minimum of 30 words
further considered an appropriate comparison group because
was required for a homepage to be retained in the sample.
they also extensively use homepages and message boards to
The final sample consisted of 28 pro-anorexia homepages.
share their experiences with others.
The estimated mean age of the site authors was 17.3 years
This study analyzed self-presentation from a linguistic
(note: 10 authors did not list their ages). In a similar way,
perspective The psychological study of language use
28 homepages of self-described anorexics in recovery were
has recently received increasing scientific attention
retrieved (mean age=21.1 years; seven authors did not list
Word-count-based text analysis approaches have been
their ages). A special effort was made to make the two
shown to reliably capture diagnostic information about a
groups comparable with regard to the authors’ sex, age,
wide range of psychological phenomena, including psychi-
atric disorders suicidal ideations coping with
Pro-anorexia and recovering anorexia message boards
breast and prostate cancer psychological responses
(i.e., online bulletin boards) were sampled in a similar way
to a national upheaval and even risk for coronary heart
via search engines as well as via links from other anorexia
sites. The message boards were hosted either by popular
Because of their vehement anorexia-as-a-lifestyle ideol-
providers such as bAmerica OnlineQ, bMSNQ, or bYahooQ or
ogy, we expected pro-anorexics, compared with recovering
by private persons. To minimize sampling bias, only the first
anorexics, to show a more pronounced hedonic focus
five pertinent entries were taken from each message board.
(references to positive emotions and the present), a higher
All entries were checked for length (more than 30 words)
level of self-absorption (references to self), and a lower level
and authorial intent. The final sample consisted of 82 pro-
of cognitive reflection (use of cognitive words).
anorexia and 80 recovering anorexia entries. No ageinformation was available on the authors of these entries.
shows selected homepage and message board
The study was a 2 (pro-anorexia vs. recovering anorexia)
All words contained in the sampled homepages and
Â 2 (homepage vs. message board) factorial design with
message board entries were pasted into a text file. These
linguistic markers of basic emotional, cognitive, and social
218 text files were cleaned, spell-checked, and submitted to
processes, temporal focus, and anorexia-related psycholog-
Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC; an
ical concerns as dependent variables.
extensively validated word-count based text analysis pro-gram LIWC characterizes text samples on
Pro-anorexia homepages (i.e., personal websites) were
1 The complete list of homepage and message board URLs, as well as
retrieved from popular Internet search engines (keywords:
the original text samples, is available from the authors.
E.J. Lyons et al. / Journal of Psychosomatic Research 60 (2006) 253 –256
74 standard grammatical (e.g., first person singular pro-
nouns, articles, prepositions, present tense), psychological(e.g., emotion words, cognitive words, social words), and
summarizes the results from a series of univariate
content (e.g., school, sexuality, eating) dimensions.
two-way analyses of variance for the selected LIWC
From the available 74 LIWC variables, three language
variables. All effects are based on 1 and 214 degrees
dimensions were most relevant for understanding differ-
ences in self-presentation styles because they have
The analyses of the linguistic indicators of emotional
previously been linked to different coping strategies:
processes indicated that compared with recovering ano-
(1) emotional processes, such as the use of words referring
rexics, pro-anorexics used more positive emotional words
to positive emotions (e.g., bhappyQ, bgoodQ) and negative
in both their homepages as well as their message boards.
emotions (bhateQ, bscaredQ), particularly anxiety (e.g.,
Pro-anorexics also used anxiety words at a markedly lower
bafraidQ, bscaredQ; (2) cognitive processes, such
rate than recovering anorexics. Furthermore, as predicted,
as the use of words that refer to cognitive mechanisms
across both text sources, pro-anorexics used significantly
(e.g., bcauseQ, bknowQ), particularly insight into causal
fewer cognitive mechanism words, and specifically insight
processes (i.e., insight words; e.g., bcauseQ, brealizeQ;
words, than recovering anorexics did. Contrary to our
(3) social processes, particularly words that hint
hypotheses, pro-anorexics made not more but fewer first
at a general social awareness (i.e., social words; e.g.,
person singular self-references than did recovering ano-
btalkQ, byouQ) versus self-awareness (i.e., first person
rexics, indicating lower levels of self-focused attention.
singular pronouns; e.g., bIQ, bmeQ, bmyQ;
Consistent with the predicted focus on the here and now,
The study also included an analysis of temporal focus
both homepages and message boards of pro-anorexics
as indicated by references to the past (i.e., use of past
contained more present tense verbs and fewer past tense
tense verbs) and the present (i.e., use of present tense
verbs than did those of recovering anorexics. Finally, with
verbs). Finally, three content categories were included to
regard to the prevalence of anorexia-related psychological
tap into the prevalence of anorexia-related psychological
concerns, pro-anorexics, compared with recovering ano-
concerns: references to eating (e.g., bmealQ, bdietQ),
rexics, showed a higher degree of preoccupation with
references to school (bexamQ, bstudyQ), and references to
eating and made fewer references to school- and death-
Table 2Differences in the language use of pro-anorexics and recovering anorexics on homepages and message boards
Means and standard deviations refer to percentage of total words within each text sample. Results are based on univariate two-way ANOVAs (df=1,214).
Rec-Anorexia = recovering
g2p = partial eta squared (sums of squares based effect size estimate that indicates what proportion of the effect and error varianceis
T P b.10 (two tailed).
TT P b.05 (two tailed).
TTT P b.01 (two tailed).
E.J. Lyons et al. / Journal of Psychosomatic Research 60 (2006) 253 – 256
self-presentation styles for the early detection and treatmentof anorexia.
The purpose of this study was to explore pro-anorexia
as a new, highly emotional, and publicly controversialphenomenon. The findings revealed that pro-anorexics andrecovering anorexics differed reliably in the language that
they used in their homepages and on message boards.
Specifically, compared with recovering anorexics, the
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