On April 24, undergrad journalism student Torri Singer started a petition on Change.org to request that Twitter "restrict use of thinspiration language and hashtags circulating the twittersphere"—that is, ban the use of "thinspiration" hashtags like #thinspo (short for "thinspiration," a portmanteau that's come to mean inspiration to be thin), #proana (pro-anorexia), and #promia (pro-bulimia). On "thinspiration" websites and social-media pages, users post pictures, inspirational quotes and mantras, weight-loss tips and tricks, and other content designed to encourage themselves and one another to drop pounds.
"The growing 'thinspiration' presence online has led to thousands of unhealthy and dangerous blogs, chat rooms, and forums for people suffering from eating disorders to encourage others to lose weight," Singer wrote in her petition, "often by extreme measures as well as discourage those with eating disorders from seeking treatment."
As of May 8, that petition has 1,639 signatures and needs another 861 to be reviewed. Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr have disabled pages that aggregate posts and photos tagged "thinspiration," but Twitter's content-removal policy contains no provision for tweets that promote self-harm or unhealthy behaviors. Twitter has remained quiet on the issue; according to the petition, spokespeople have refused to comment on any specific user or hashtag.
So what's going on within these much-maligned "thinspiration" communities that makes them such a cause for concern?
I browsed through the #thinspo hashtag looking for some answers, and what I found was a distinctive collection of images that seem to pop up pretty frequently. Many of these images consist of a photograph of a beautiful, slender girl, superimposed with white words on a black background listing one item in an ongoing series of "Reasons to Lose Weight" (also a popular hashtag among thinspiration fans). They range from "for the 'Miranda Kerr' look" to "so I can have fun at parties instead of standing awkwardly in the corner" to "because the hottest guy I've ever known wants to be with me, but the last time I saw him was two years and 20 pounds ago."
These ubiquitous "Reasons to Lose Weight" all come from the same corner of the Internet: a Tumblr called 100 Days to Change Myself (also sometimes referred to as the 100 Day Project), curated by 17-year-old Texas resident Paige Padilla.
Padilla is different from other thinspiration bloggers, she's quick to point out. Her Tumblr, she says, started in 2012 as a thinspiration page partially populated with content submitted by followers, but more recently, with the rise of pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia content within the thinspiration community online, she's made an effort to emphasize that girls (and guys) should lose weight in healthy ways.
Still, Padilla has frequent encounters—and inevitably deals with some territorial overlap—with the pro-eating-disorder community online. She often has to take action to stop her Reasons to Lose Weight content from being repurposed by pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites. So I enlisted Padilla's help in understanding why the thinspiration movement has flourished online, what steps pro-eating disorder groups are taking to preserve its endangered presence on the Internet, and how to put an end to the unhealthy behaviors often promoted by thinspiration—which could be a bigger challenge than it seems.
Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
How did you first get involved with thinspiration?
I really wanted to be able to row in college. But I'm short. And if you're short, it's really hard to row in college at a Division I level unless you're a lightweight. So I really, really wanted to lose weight, and that was my motivating factor. But then I got more into, like, wondering what other people's reasons to lose weight were. I wanted to be a good rower; other people wanted to look good in a bikini. So I made this blog called "Reasons to Lose," and people just started submitting everything. I started that blog in February of 2012, and I got 17,000, maybe 18,000 followers very rapidly.
I was getting overwhelmed by the submissions, and later on I realized the majority of them were really very—well, some of them weren't healthy reasons. So I've tried to screen them as best I could. But if I've had overwhelming requests for "So he can pick me up and spin me in a circle," then I'll do that, even though I don't personally think that's a great reason.
It was easier to reach people on Tumblr, but I know people often put my photos on [social photo-sharing site] WeHeartIt and Pinterest now, too. That's how it spreads.
So "thinspiration" is basically an online phenomenon that uses words and pictures to inspire people to be thin. Right?
Well, there are also terms called "pro-ana" and "pro-mia," and those are pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia. Those are people who, like, advocate having an eating disorder to lose weight. That's the really negative side of thinspiration; these girls post pictures of, like, very ill, thin-looking people with the thinspiration tag.
For people like me, and—I hope—the majority of my followers, thinspiration can also mean [finding] people you look up to who lost weight a healthy way. ... That [idea] has kind of evolved into something called "fitspiration." So there's thinspiration, which is now kind of an unhealthy, sickly fascination with someone with an eating disorder. And then there's fitspiration, which concentrates on the health aspect. My website—I've tagged it as thinspiration, but personally I'm a fitspo blogger rather than a thinspo blogger. I would much rather people lost weight the healthy way.
Do you get a lot of submissions from women with unhealthy attitudes toward their bodies, or from the pro-eating disorder community?
I do. I get a lot of those submissions. It's hard to deal with those, because I can't sit down and send a message to every single person who I fear might have an eating disorder. But I do the best I can. I send a message to every person who's not an anonymous submitter, saying something like "Hey, I don't think this is a healthy reason to lose weight. ... Maybe it'd be good if you talk to someone." I won't post the ones I think are really bad.
Can you share a few of the Reasons to Lose Weight that you've rejected?
I got one that said, "So I can see my ribcage." Or "So I can weigh as much as [Lia]," this character in Wintergirls. That book is about girls who have eating disorders, and one of them dies. "So I can weigh under 100 pounds." That one, it's hard—some girls can weigh under 100 pounds. But I looked her up and this girl was 5'9". She's one of the people I actually reached out to and said, "Please please please, you need to realize that that's not healthy and you're going to do serious damage to your body."
[I try to screen out submissions that convey] unhealthy goals; goals rooted in motivations like "so that I can be hotter than my friend." At first I would post things like that—and then I realized that that's just a vain reason that breeds very unhealthy tendencies.
How often do you reach out to girls and say, "Hey, maybe you should talk to someone," or, "Hey, maybe that's not a healthy goal"?