Academic journal article Texas Journal of Women, Gender, and the Law

"Stick a Toothbrush Down Your Throat:" an Analysis of the Potential Liability of Pro-Eating Disorder Websites

Academic journal article Texas Journal of Women, Gender, and the Law

"Stick a Toothbrush Down Your Throat:" an Analysis of the Potential Liability of Pro-Eating Disorder Websites

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

A young girl-perhaps unsure of herself and teased mercilessly at school, perhaps a victim of abuse or family dysfunction, perhaps seemingly normal-stumbles across a website promoting a "lifestyle" of seeming power and achievement. All it takes is an iron will, the site says, but if she is strong enough, she too can look like the idols pictured on the site; she too can gain the approval of her peers and society at large; she too can take pride in being one of the few. She takes the site's message to heart; soon she is eating 400 calories per day, hiding her food under her mashed potatoes so no one will notice she's not eating. Sooner or later, she hurts herself. Perhaps it takes years of slow malnutrition to wear her body's systems down; perhaps in a moment of desperation, she tries the toothbrush trick or tries the infamous ipecac, only to be found in the morning, a wisplike body collapsed on the bathroom floor in a pile of her own blood and vomit.

Can the website be held liable for her death?

Surprisingly, litigation against such websites has not yet reached a courtroom, and action against such sites has been limited to their removal from certain free web hosting servers for alleged terms of service violations. In this paper, I will introduce the concept of these websites and analyze various theories of liability which might be used to hold them accountable for harms caused to their visitors. Part II will define eating disorders; Part III will explain the phenomenon of the websites that glorify them. In Part IV, I will explore the various causes of action which could potentially be brought against these sites, especially in consideration of the fact that the courts have not yet developed any consistent approach in evaluating the few analogous cases in which media cause physical harm.

For the purposes of this paper, the focus will remain on cases in which the harm in question is self-inflicted by the victim. This is most likely to be the case when harm is caused by a pro-eating disorder website. Additionally, cases concerning self-harm suffer the same problem of causation, and contributory negligence diminishes the force of any claim for recovery, making the First Amendment more likely to bar tort liability.

II. Defining the Disorders

Defining eating disorders is not a simple task. The three major eating disorders-anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive overeating-have overlapping behaviors and cognitive processes. Anorexia and bulimia, especially, tend towards co-morbidity, leading sufferers to start with one behavior and end up with the other, flip-flop back and forth between them, or suffer both simultaneously in what is often called "bulimarexia."1

For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on anorexia and bulimia as pure forms. Anorexia (from the Greek for without appetite) is characterized by severely limited food intake, distorted body image, refusal to maintain a normal body weight, and intense fear of weight gain, despite the fact that the sufferer is often very underweight.2 Bulimia (from the Greek for ox hunger) is characterized as a binge/purge cycle. Sufferers binge, eating large amounts of food in a short time, accompanied by feelings of loss of control.3 This, in turn, leads to feelings of shame, guilt, and an intense fear of weight gain, possibly triggering purging behavior such as vomiting, overexercise, or misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or other medications.4 Like anorexies, bulimics obsess over body shape and have low self-esteem.5

In the United States, seven million women and one million men across all races, age groups, and socioeconomic levels currently suffer from eating disorders.6 Three-quarters of these people will endure their disease for one to fifteen years, and six percent will die from it.7 Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disease, and only fifty percent of sufferers are ever cured completely of the disease. …

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