Advocates of the bill say the law will help send a powerful message about the need to take eating disorder such as anorexia seriously, The Daily Beast has reported.
Pro-anorexia, or pro-ana websites, blogs and forums have simultaneously drawn concern and ire about their role in perpetuating anorexia by offering “creative” tips on how to make yourself vomit, how to fool your stomach into thinking it’s full and by spreading slogans such as: “Coffee and smokes, and cold Diet Cokes, that’s what pretty girls are made of”.
But is legislating against people who create these websites - and who are often anorexia sufferers as well - the right way to go?
“I would be very concerned about criminalising them,” says Christine Morgan, chief executive officer of the Butterfly Foundation, the national support group for sufferers and carers.
“It’s a site where people who are not well come to get support, help and understanding. We should be looking at helping them with recovery, and not criminalising their illness”.
While many pro-ana users feel they have found a place where they belong and where they can discuss their illness without fear of judgement, Morgan views the websites’ existence as extremely dangerous and harmful.
“Anorexia nervosa is a highly competitive illness, and any active promotion of ways of doing anorexia is very harmful,” she says.
After working with Instagram to ban any “thinspiration”, or “thinspo” images - which promote thinness as a “lifestyle” choice, either through posting low-fat foods or pictures of extremely thin women and men, often with prominent ribs and thigh gaps - Morgan says she was dismayed to see the return of “thinspo” as “fitspo”, images of women, often very thin, exercising in fashionable sports gear.
“It all comes back in different ways, and one of the challenges is to fight it when they manifest in other forms,” she says.
Despite other countries threatening to criminalise those who promote being extremely thin as a viable and healthy lifestyle choice, Morgan says the Australian government has not introduced any legislation banning pro-ana websites, even after federal MP Anna Burke proposed such a bill in 2008 as part of the then government’s internet censorship plan.
“In Australia, we have a voluntary code of conduct in the media and other areas, and the best way to approach it here is to engage people in conversation as to why they shouldn't do these things,” Morgan says.
The concept of a voluntary media code was put to the test in France, also in 2008, when the country introduced a law that made it a crime to “incite” people to thinness on websites, magazines and in advertisements after two young models died from anorexia.
The bill gave judges power to imprison and fine offenders up to $50,000 AUD if found guilty of “inciting others to deprive themselves of food” to an “excessive” degree.
The decision was met with an outcry from the fashion industry, with French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier quoted as saying: “This kind of problem cannot be resolved with laws”.
Israel passed a similar law in January 2013, which requires models to obtain a doctor’s certificate showing that they have a body mass index higher than 18.5 (still below the average of 19 to 25).
Since then, discussions about the impact of anorexia and pro-ana sites in Australia have been largely hidden from the public, only emerging when other countries - such as Italy, in this case - publicly, and drastically, weigh in on the issue.
Jennifer Beveridge, chief executive officer of Eating Disorders Victoria, says that international approaches to combating the rise of “thinspo” and pro-ana sites provide an opportunity for Australians to engage in an “open dialogue about the illness, and to explore ways in which we can provide some good support for people who have an eating disorder”.
“I’d like to see Australia go down the path of talking more openly about the disorder … and look at ways of being more open-minded in how we support people with an eating disorder,” she says.
“Often we blame and make people feel bad, whereas we need to be accepting and open and help facilitate recovery.”
However, Beveridge acknowledges that pro-ana sites can be quite harmful, often perpetuating unhelpful and unsafe behaviours rather than encouraging people to recover.
“Pro-ana sites are often run by people who who have a personal experience with eating disorders, and it is not their intention to be malicious. They see the space as as supportive and feel as though they are being heard”.
She sees the development of more support spaces - both online and offline - as a means of combating anorexia nervosa, as well as educating families and friends about the complex nature of the illness and the thoughts that accompany those who suffer from it.