Analyzing the toxicity of online ‘thinspiration’
It’s almost too easy to go on Tumblr or Instagram and type “thinspiration” into the search bar and to click past the little blue screen that asks “Are you okay?” offering you phone numbers you’ll likely never call and websites you’ll probably never visit While you ignore those messages, you carefully read the captions detailing how to use laxatives to purge and what exercises to do. You’ll be encouraged to message a friend who will bully you out of eating for weeks. This is the online community known as the pro-anorexia community (pro-ana for short), and it is helping kill people with eating disorders.
Thinspiration, or thinspo, is an incredibly broad category on social media which is what makes it so difficult to do away with. It can be almost anything — gifs from a television show featuring a character with an eating disorder to diet tips to sharing one’s personal weight and calorie counts. Tumblr user proanaaaaaboi, named for his role in the community, is an eighteen year old boy who runs one such blog. He explained to me that he “used to watch weight programs” and “fell into this on Tumblr [sic].” His blog, which is primarily in black and white, features all of the aforementioned types of posts; he often comments on photos thinspirational photos with heart eyes, complementing visible bones, sallow skin, and hair loss.
“[Tumblr is] a guide to assist me with my pro ana — it gives me ideas and inspiration,” he explained, justifying his role in enforcing this so-called lifestyle. Seventeen year old high school student Julie Cozette, who often advocates for eating disorder recovery on Facebook, is an eating disorder survivor. She too found herself using thinspiration to influence her eating disorder, causing her negative behaviors to spiral out of control. She notes that she used to “look up hashtags related to eating disorders or losing weight and just scroll through.”
Chelsea Kronengold, a representative from the National Eating Disorder Association, points out, these “quotes and images are some ways social media might trigger or prolong an eating disorder.” They emphasize aspects of body image thinspirational blogs often romanticize or obsess over, and ignore the more dangerous parts of eating disorders.
“It is important to think critically about the images you see on all types of media so you can recognize potential use of filters and photo retouching,” Kronengold said. It’s these tricks, used online and in mainstream media, that convince people who live with eating disorders that they’re falling behind, and that perpetuates a kind of toxic false body image.
“Anorexia is really about pride,” Cozette confessed, “so I would get really competitive with these people over the Internet who I didn’t even know.” Such is the effect of these blogs, as they both teach anorexia like a religion and condemn those who have different strategies. Even different eating disorders have different reputations in these communities.
“Anorexia is definitely more glorified while bulimia is more shamed,” she said, “I think society values intense control of yourself and your body, so anorexics are viewed as… ‘succeeding more.’”
These websites aren’t the only places romanticizing a specific type of eating disorder, especially in regards to control. Kronengold notes that “books, movies, and other forms of pop culture that touch upon EDs tend to present the image of anorexia chic by depicting the sufferer as someone with an ‘astounding willpower’ or ‘incredible self control.’”
Although eating disorders are not an entirely common topic for media to focus on, they are growing in pop culture. Most recently, the Netflix original film To The Bone has come under fire for representing what Kronengold refers to as a “how to guide” for those who are struggling with disordered eating.
“The media often depicts EDs as only affecting the stereotypical young, white, affluent waif-thin teenage girl,” she notes, “however, we know that EDs don’t discriminate and can affect anyone.” According to The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, approximately 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S.
And they are impacting anyone and everyone, whether it’s as someone struggling to overcome one or as someone impacted by those struggling. But it’s not uncommon for those who perpetuate the toxicity of eating disorders online and in social media to be self aware.
Proanaaaaaboi knows of the dangers of the pro-anorexia community, and makes the same connection between the obsession with self-control and the excess of eating disorders.
“Some people who get into it lack the self-control to know when to stop,” he explains, “we have lost lives, and it’s very sad, but that’s the game you play.”
However, according to Julie, “This needs to be taken more seriously. It’s not a diet, it’s a disease.” To her, unlike many of the pro-ana blogs online, it’s not a game. To her, “it’s like being possessed by something that wants to kill you, but it’s scarier because it makes you kill yourself.”
It’s difficult to affect change when so many factors sustain eating disorders, but Kronengold believes that, to a degree, this responsibility lies in the hands of those who create pro-anorexia pop culture.
“Filmmakers and artists who tackle the issue of eating disorders have a responsibility to convey the seriousness of these conditions, rather than presenting EDs as a fad, phase, or choice,” she notes. She offers a solution for these artists, stating that “EDs can effectively – and responsibly – be illustrated by focusing on the mental and physical consequences of the eating disorder.”
She also points out that the websites and applications that host these pages have their own responsibilities when it comes to fighting pro-anorexia content.
“It can be helpful to have community guidelines to prevent ‘pro-anorexia’ content,” she explains. Such a step forward would enable websites to remove dangerous and triggering content that violates their terms of service, thus preventing that content from existing in the first place. She also implores websites to use trigger warnings for “potentially triggering content,” and to focus on “sharing [their] story responsibly.”
And Tumblr’s terms and conditions agree, in theory. According to a February 2012 post by the blogging platform’s staff, which references the glorification of eating disorders, and goes on to state that “these are messages and points of view that [they] strongly oppose, and don’t want to be hosting,” the platform has implemented a content-management policy with the intent to remove these kinds of blogs. This decision was met with a great deal of backlash from the Tumblr community, who argued that there was a firm distinction between posting about their eating disorder to support recovery and advocating “anorexia-chic” culture. Such forms of self-expression are valuable, yes, but it’s clear by ease of access this loophole has allowed pro-anorexia blogs to grow on Tumblr. And, it’s fairly clear that further enforcement will do only good.
Changing terms and conditions won’t cure eating disorders, nor will they bring back those who have lost their lives to their illness, or those who found themselves trapped in a hyper-sensationalized version of online eating disorder culture. But removing dangerous and triggering content can promote recovery and safe activity, in a world already full of dangerous body image related media.
“Anorexia makes you feel like you’re strong because you have the willpower to fight all your natural instincts,” Julie says, “but nothing feels more powerful than finally being able to say you beat it.”
Although these blogs treat anorexia as their source of strength, their regulation and removal, as well as a heightened awareness surrounding “anorexia chic” media, can be a strong step towards an awareness giving people the opportunity to recover. These images, as well as the ideas they promote, should be temporary because the life-altering effects of eating disorders are not.
Audra Joiner is a first-year exploratory major who just wants Tumblr to listen to their own terms and conditions. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.