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May Wilkerson May Wilkerson

Italian Law Would Criminalize Owners of Pro-Ana Websites

Pro-ana websites dangerously encourage and promote eating disorders. But critics of the proposed legislation say the people who run these sites are sick themselves, and jail time is not the answer.

3 Substance

A proposed new law in Italy to fine or jail those who “promote eating disorders” would target owners of pro-anorexia and bulimia websites. However, the problem is many of these would-be “criminals” are young people suffering from eating disorders themselves.

In Italy, it’s estimated that at least 2,500 people are diagnosed with anorexia and 3,000 with bulimia each year, according to a 2013 report from the country’s Ministry of Health. And many of them find encouragement on “pro-ana” and “pro-mia” websites—which are popular in the US, too—where users share diet tips, post “thinspiration” photos and quotes, and promote behaviors like starving, over-exercise and binging and purging. Some even disturbingly sell promotional jewelry meant to help users identify each other in the “real world.”

Experts say the sites cause a great deal of harm. “The world of pro-ana and thinspo is a dangerous place for those who have eating disorders or who are vulnerable to developing them,” says Claire Mysko, teen outreach coordinator for the National Eating Disorders Association.

If the new law is passed, creators of pro-ana or pro-mia sites in Italy could face fines of $13,000 to $134,000 (more if the website is found to have affected someone under 14), and/or up to two years in jail. One of the Italian Parliament members behind the legislation, Michela Marzano, is herself in recovery from anorexia. She says there are “thousands” of these websites in Italy and the law is meant to send a message that they won’t be tolerated. “The sites don’t necessarily cause this troubling behavior, because the causes are complex and many,” she says, “but the sites do maintain people’s suffering, by making them feel like everything is alright.”

But as Mysko points out, “people who create and consume this content are not villains. They are struggling, and sometimes they are very sick.” Critics of the law say it would only serve to punish young people who need help, instead of helping them recover. Journalist Angela Azzaro commends the efforts to address a huge problem, but argues that the new law “is not only deluded, it is likely to be counterproductive.” And Italian author Chiara Lalli criticizes the “wacky” and “ultra-conservative” legislation, asking: “How can you think of putting in jail the authors of blogs, websites, Facebook pages, who are often just the girls who suffer from anorexia?”