- Online pro-eating-disorder communities are often targeted by sexual predators.
- Experts spoke to Insider about the link between eating disorders and grooming.
- Warning: This story discusses eating disorders and sexual violence.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The link between eating disorders and grooming is one that Tara Maguire, a survivor of sexual abuse in childhood, knows well. She told Insider that she realized she’d always had a dysfunctional relationship with food when she started going to therapy.
“Food was the only thing I felt I was in control of,” she said. “I couldn’t control what happened to my body, but I could control what was going into my body. So I think it definitely creates a lot of vulnerability.”
The connection is so stark that experts say predators often look for victims by targeting websites and forums where young people are having pro-eating-disorder conversations.
As Dr. Carolyn Coker Ross, an expert in eating disorders and addictions and the CEO of an online coaching program for food and body-image issues called The Anchor Program, told Insider: “If you’re a predator, that’s exactly where you would go.”
Pro-eating-disorder communities offer fertile ground for predators
Every iteration of social media has been plagued with pro-eating-disorder content, from micro-blogging sites like Tumblr at its height in the 2010s to Instagram and TikTok today.
These so-called “pro-ana” — or “pro-anorexia” — communities are places where people share images or videos used as “thinspiration” for losing even more weight.
“It’s almost a religion,” Todd Grande, a YouTuber and licensed professional counselor of mental health with a doctorate in counselor education and supervision, told Insider.
But does having an eating disorder and joining these communities make members more susceptible to abuse?
Eating disorders have been linked to past traumatic experiences. The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences study, which has been going for more than 20 years with 17,000 participants, has shown that more episodes of childhood mistreatment — parental struggles with substance abuse or mental illness, divorce, abuse, or neglect, for example — increase the prevalence of negative health outcomes such as mental-health issues and reckless behavior.
“It’s risky behavior to be online and respond to a predator,” said Ross, adding that young people with eating disorders have “often had those adverse childhood experiences.”
“Something in their family has already affected them and affected their self-esteem,” she said, adding that it makes them “perfect” targets.
People with eating disorders, particularly anorexia, often restrict other areas of their lives as well, she said, meaning they are often also sexually, physically, and emotionally “anorexic” as well. So they not only limit their diets, but they also tend to be withdrawn and find it hard to pursue or prolong friendships and romantic relationships. The eating disorder is their primary relationship and comes before anything and anyone else.
“The eating disorder has to come first,” Ross said. “So what better guise to target someone like this than to be on these pro-ana sites, encouraging it?”
Eating-disorder ‘coaches’ often pose as trustworthy
In December, The Times of London reported that women with eating disorders were being targeted by predatory men in Facebook groups. One of those men was pretending to be a nurse, according to The Times, and would send women explicit messages and pressure them into sending him nude photos. He also reportedly talked about masturbation with a child younger than 16.
Ross said these predators advise young people with eating disorders on reaching their “goals” by posing as someone they can trust. In another Times article from May, a student spoke about how a coach she met online encouraged her to adopt extreme
diets, such as eating only cabbage.
“He was acting as that little anorexic voice in the back of my head,” she said. “He’d say, ‘Oh, you’ll look insane when you hit seven stone,'” referring to the British unit equaling 14 pounds. “But I was never going to hit seven stone. I’d be dead before I got there.”
The Guardian reported in March 2019 that this kind of coaching was also occurring on Kik — a messaging app that was popular with teenagers at the time. The outlet found 71 pro-anorexia groups on the app, where users would be approached by coaches “within minutes of joining a conversation.”
Grande told Insider that someone with an eating disorder sees themselves as heavy or misshapen when they look in the mirror.
“They see a person who’s thin. They see the same thing that we see,” he said. “But to them, that thinness is too fat. It gets into a real area of kind of perceptual dynamics that’s difficult to understand.”
Predators can take advantage of that mindset and feed into this obsession, Ross said, especially if they are offering to help with weight-loss tactics.
They also replace the role of the parent in some cases by telling the victim their guardians want to “fatten” them up. Teenagers are vulnerable to this manipulation because their brains’ frontal lobes, responsible for decision-making and self-control, are not fully developed until the mid-20s, Ross said.
“They’re looking at the immediate reward of, I’ll be thin, I’ll be liked, maybe I’ll become famous,” she said.
Former fans believe predators targeted YouTuber Eugenia Cooney’s channel
Three former fans of the YouTuber Eugenia Cooney told Insider they believe this type of behavior happened on her Discord server — a chat forum influencers use to talk to fans. Stories of alleged grooming and predatory behavior in these communities surfaced last year, which led Cooney to delete the server in September.
Cooney herself does not explicitly make pro-ana content, but she does fall into a gray area where fans use her images as thinspiration on sites like Pinterest. Her critics argue that her videos and thumbnails show her body in a way that could encourage eating disorders among viewers.
A recent petition to temporarily deplatform Cooney, who is 26 and has more than 2 million YouTube subscribers, raised questions about Cooney’s responsibility, and how her claims that her very thin appearance is healthy could be influencing the young people who look up to her.
The Discord situation was, to some of her critics, further confirmation that Cooney’s channel could be dangerous.
One of the former fans, who requested anonymity for fear of Cooney’s fan base harassing her, told Insider she was contacted as soon as she joined the server by someone who thought she was a child. She said she believes this person was going to try to “coach” her because they talked about eating disorders.
“I think Eugenia’s community is extremely unsafe for minors or for anyone struggling, whether it’s with an eating disorder or something else,” she said.
Another former fan of Cooney’s, who wanted to remain anonymous but who Insider has spoken to and identified, said she was sexually harassed by people in Cooney’s server. She sent Insider screenshots of conversations from older men as well as one from April in which a Discord moderator told a minor to message him if she wanted to lose weight.
“Everyone can get a thigh gap,” he wrote.
Cooney said she had deleted the Discord server in a video posted in September when this story and others of predatory behavior resurfaced.
She told Insider in an email on September 10 that she had never willingly made a predator a mod on her
or Discord and never would. She said she “immediately removed” a moderator when she saw evidence that he was a man who was convicted in 2014 for first-degree child molestation, according to police records.
“It’s been making me feel sick that anyone would think that I would be protecting predators,” she said. “I would absolutely never do that and am completely against any type of predatory behavior and it is never something I would condone.”
Predators have carefully crafted their tactics for hooking in young, vulnerable people
A recent study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders concluded that the longer teens spend on social media, the more likely they are to develop an eating disorder. This is not a new area of research — previous studies have found a link between Instagram usage and orthorexia, defined as an obsession with “clean” eating, and discussed the impact of media consumption in general on the mental health of young people.
According to Ross, the only answer is education early in children’s lives about social media, its effect on self-esteem, and the dangers that it could bring. Otherwise, they might not be able to resist the kind of interaction predators have carefully crafted to hook them in.
“I think most teenagers are vulnerable,” she said. “Particularly girls who are struggling with body-image issues.”
Having someone reinforce the belief that losing more weight is the road to being “perfect,” is incredibly tempting, she said.
“They don’t realize the danger.”