Online 'coaches' encourage girls to stay anorexic, share nude photos: Dutch study

There are a multitude of pro-anorexia sites where girls with the eating disorder can exchange tips to lose weight. These sites often also include 'coaches', who guide girls and even scold or punish them if they don't do as told. These 'pro-ana-coaches' are often men who deliberately seek out girls with eating disorders to get nude photos or even sex from them, according to the first results of a Dutch study into these coaches, NOS reports.

The study is being conducted by the Center against child- and human trafficking CKM, mental health institute GGZ Rivierduinen, Eetstoornissen Ursula, and Proud2Bme. The study is still ongoing, but the researchers are so shocked by their findings that they decided to already release the initial results, they said to the broadcaster. They want to warn girls, their parents, the authorities and others involved about the risks. 

The researchers posted two fake profiles on public forums for girls with anorexia seeking help with weight loss: 14-year-old Jisse and 15-year-old Sarina. They received 45 responses from pro-ana-coaches in a short time. Almost all of these coaches turned out to be men. More than half asked for photos almost immediately, preferably in underwear or nude, saying the photos were for a 'body check'. A number offered help with weight loss in exchange for physical sex. 

"The pro-ana-coaches were very direct and said things like: 'I want to help you, but then you have to send nude photos now'. Or: 'I'm going to help you, but then you have to have sex with me'. They clearly respond to the vulnerabilities and uncertainties of the girl", researcher Shamir Ceuleers of CKM said to NOS. If girls didn't cooperate, the coaches turned nasty. "With reactions such a: 'Do you want to stay a fat pig?' These are young girls, often with low self-esteem, who are also extra vulnerable because they have an eating disorder." Coaches also threatened to publish shared photos or told the girls they'd go to their house if they didn't do as told. 

"Pro-ana fits in with the strict thoughts that girls have about appearance, food and weight", professor Eric van Furth, also involved in the study, explained to the broadcaster. "They themselves describe that they are so consumed by those thoughts that they look for this kind of help. Coaches take those strict thoughts over as it were and become the strict master of their eating disorder."

In addition to the fake profiles, the researchers also questioned 60 girls who are active on pro-ana websites or groups about their experiences. About 70 percent of these girls were minors. Of that group, 96 percent said they were asked to send photos, almost always in underwear or nude. More than half of the coaches wanted to meet physically. In around 20 percent of the cases, the coaches asked for sex in exchange for weight loss help. In some cases that ended with the girl being forced to have sex with her 'coach'. 

Asking for and sharing nude photos of minors is child pornography and therefore punishable. But none of the girls the researchers spoke to went to the police. In fact, the talk with the researchers was the first time they shared their experiences for many of the girls. They are ashamed about what happened to them. The researchers stress that the aim of this study is not to trace the perpetrators, but to map out the problem. Only in one case did the researchers immediately report what they found to the police - on one online group men were actively sharing child pornography. 

The study will continue into the summer, but the researchers don't expect their findings to change. "There is hardly any difference in our experience with the fake profiles and the stories we heard from girls. We mainly hope to find out more about how these men work exactly", a researcher said to NOS.

This study was launched after a 2016 lawsuit against Bob J. from Arnhem, a man who lured girls with an eating disorder to rape them. There were also signals from abroad about men who approached girls with anorexia online. Experts involved wanted to know whether there is a broader problem with pro-ana-coaches in the Netherlands.