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"?
It varies. A lot of the submissions I get are anonymous, so it's rare that they [come with contact information]—but when they're not anonymous, that's when I reach out to them. I'd say it's maybe one in every 20.
What's the response been from the girls you've reached out to?
A lot of them will say, "I've tried other ways. This is the only way I can do this." A lot of them don't reply. And there's a very, very small, minute faction who say, "Guess what, today I talked to my parents." Or "I talked to my friends and told them what was going on." And while that's rare—super-rare—it's still comforting to know I might have saved someone.
The girls who have rejected that message—do you think they turn elsewhere on the Internet for eating-disorder inspiration?
You know, I'm sure they do. Tumblr isn't the source of all thinspo; there's still Twitter and WeHeartIt and even anorexia forums, where girls post photos. People have posted Reasons of mine on one of those forums, and it was troubling to me that people were using my Reasons for that.
One time—I remember this like it was yesterday—there was a picture that said, Reasons to Lose Weight, number something-something, that just said, "Six-pack." A girl re-blogged it and it said, "Trigger trigger trigger for the day. Not eating for the rest of the week." That made me go back and re-evaluate the content of my blog.
Did you make changes after you'd re-evaluated?
I did. My posts now focus more on my own journey; the Reasons I do post I try to moderate and make sure that the people submitting are submitting for healthy reasons. If I wouldn't use it as a reason to lose weight, I wouldn't want someone else to.
Do you have any favorite Reasons to Lose Weight images that you've created?
My first one was "So I can be a badass." [Laughs] It had a girl in a ripped shirt with really nice abs, and she was proud and mighty and it was just the defining moment where I said, you know what? This is what I want. This is when I'm going to make that change.
I don't think anything has ever compared to that one moment, but I think my favorite is "So I can be healthy." When I submitted it, it was one of my own Reasons, and I was really sad that more people didn't re-blog it. It only got, like, 100 re-blogs.
How many re-blogs do your posts get on average?
On average, maybe 300. But I've had some that have been in the thousands. That "So I can be a badass" one got maybe 3,000, and got something like 7,000 elsewhere. Another one that got super popular was one with a thigh gap—before I started stricter moderation. It got a ton of notes, and led me to some very scary thinspo blogs.
The thigh gap. That's a worrying fad.
A lot of people who are obsessed with the thigh gap are the girls that emphasize "thin" over "healthy." Looking at those girls' other posts is really scary.
Do you get a lot of submissions regarding the thigh gap?
Yeah. I do. I've had at least a hundred submissions for that.
And you don't post those?
The first place I came across your photos was when I was poking around the #thinspo tag on Twitter, and many of them were being used by pro-ana and pro-mia Twitter handles.
I actually didn't know they were getting used on Twitter. I've come across my photos on WeHeartIt's pro-ana and pro-mia pages, and I've tried to tell them I don't advocate that. I can't tell them not to use my photos; they're going to use my photos no matter what. But it's one of those things where I've learned I have to be careful what I post, so that I'm not giving them the option of using my photos anymore.
Maybe you can explain this to me. A lot of the photos that come up with the #thinspo tag—and especially the ones that are also tagged with #proana and #promia—aren't homemade self-portraits of the users themselves. Rather, they're photos that look professionally done. Where are those photos being pulled from?
Magazines; modeling portfolios. Those are easy to grab photos from online. Or fashion ads. There are a lot of fitness magazines that have photos of girls who look healthy but aren't—like, they work out an insane amount but they don't eat enough calories. ... Girls idolize that; they think, "If I work out really hard, I can have that too."
I think a lot of the photos found online, though, are from modeling portfolios or from fashion ads. Often they're the proofs for the photo, because they don't have words on them. Or sometimes people will edit the words out, because it's not that hard to do on Photoshop.
So where does one find modeling portfolios online?
Oh. Just by searching "modeling portfolios"?
Yeah. Just Google "modeling," or "modeling portfolios," or even "thin," and you'll find them. And if you go to WeHeartIt and look at the thinspiration tag, you can see where all the photos were Hearted from.
[Author's note: It's true—many of the photos found on WeHeartIt's "thinspiration," "thigh gap," and "collar bone" sub-pages can be traced back to personal Tumblrs as well as other outlets like FashionModelDirectory.com, Harper's Bazaar, Victoria's Secret, and other clothing retail ads.]
So let's talk about the Change.org petition to ban thinspiration language from Twitter. Instagram did it, Pinterest did it, Tumblr did it—so now there's pressure on Twitter to do the same. Should Twitter crack down on thinspiration, too?
If it were up to me, hell yeah, I'd ban that tag. What started as a movement to inspire people to lose weight has taken off and turned into a monster, this pro-ana and pro-mia movement.
I think the less people can get ahold of these photos, the better. Because it's going to inspire a 12-year-old—and yes, a 12-year-old has contacted me telling me she was anorexic because she saw all the photos of thinspo. I think everyone needs to take a hard look at what's really important, and it's not the thigh gap.
The impression that I get, though, is that pro-eating disorder communities are pretty hardcore about this sort of thing. When bans were instituted on Pinterest and Tumblr, was there a backlash or a counter-move that you were aware of? Theoretically, it wouldn't be hard to just make a new page, would it?
Well, they didn't even block the "pro-ana" or "pro-mia" pages on Tumblr. Which I cannot understand. Because that's the entire thesis of that movement. So they continued posting in there, and they continued posting in "thinspo,"—with a comma. On Tumblr, when you press comma, it ends the tag and starts a new one. If you do it on your phone, if you tap comma comma, it'll be its own tag [with the comma in it].
So theoretically, that could happen just as easily on Twitter.
All it takes is someone tweeting, "Guys, the thinspo tag is blocked, let's make it"—I don't know—"'#thinspot.'"
How effective do you think a Twitter ban on thinspiration language would be?
I'm not going to say I think it'd be super effective. But I don't think they should just sit back and not do anything about it just because [pro-eating disorder users] will find something else to use. They should be blocking every channel they've got that gets the message across, and keep blocking the tags until the movement is suppressed. This is an issue that requires a vigilant effort.
I'm in favor of blocking the thinspo hashtag. I really hope this issue gets resolved, because this is an epidemic, basically. I hope girls can escape it.