Until yesterday, "thinspo," the cutesy term for images of too-thin people and mantras that glorify eating disorders, was something to be erased from the Internet. Now, new research indicates otherwise. But talking to experts on the subject, it's hard to know the best way to tackle it.
Earlier this year when thinspo communities began popping up on Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram, all three platforms responded with the same policy: A complete ban of the images. But, a new study from Indiana University suggests that maybe these zero tolerance policies may not be the best tactic to getting these people healthy. Looking at 33 pro-anorexia bloggers, the researchers found that "these communities are providing support" and that "this might actually be a way of prolonging their life, so that they are mentally ready to tackle their recovery process." That is in direct contrast to what the position of these popular social networks, which have pushed to get rid of thinspo completely. So, should we just stop trying to control these troubled communities? Well, not exactly.
The thing is, censorship doesn't really work. Thinspiration has existed since the beginning of the Internet, showing up on early platforms like Xynga and LiveJournal. Those pre-historic Internet social networks have since died out, but thinspiration has not. As the Internet has evolved, the thinspiration community has found new places to share. We've seen it pop up on pretty much every single popular social media platform, starting with Facebook and followed by Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, and even Twitter, though as a less visual platform, it's less popular for sharing pro-ana (short for pro-anorexia) imagery. The Internet is a particularly fertile ground for these communities because of the anonymity, emphasis on visuals, and the ease with which one can self-publish. (Plus, Google has the term neatly cataloged so that any thinspo-seeker can search and find it.) Because the Internet provides basically endless real estate, once one site shuts a community down, its members just migrate elsewhere. Given the odds of getting rid of it forever, banning it one social network at a time doesn't seem like the best solution.
Thinspo uses a mixture of motivational phrases, personal photographs, and outside media, like fashion photos and celebrity snapshots, as a way to glorify thin-ness, and by extension, anorexia. The images range from familiar images of thin celebrities like Misha Barton, who one blog called "major thinspiration," to very bony anonymous models to members of the community posting their before-and-after weight loss photos. Alongside these usually, but not always, tiny women there is often commentary promoting unhealthy weight loss tactics and body image, like: "You wanna binge? Keep telling yourself 'later.' Soon enough, that 'later' turns into 'never.'" Or, more to the point: "Best tips for throwing up."
Bans, while well-meaning, have a trick birthday cake candle effect: Each time one network does a total take down, the community pops up elsewhere—and there's always somewhere else to go on the Internet. In fact, Pinterest and Instagram are just the latest digital platforms to find themselves hosting pro-anorexia communities. A 2001 Time article details the exact same trend we're seeing today, illustrated with retro GeoCities-esque screengrabs: "Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, anorexics, and would-be anorexics around the globe can access more than 400 web sites designed solely for them," Jessica Reaves wrote. Although organizations like the National Eating Disorder Association have worked with social networks like Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest to contain it, thinspo access still exists elsewhere. As long as the Internet, photos, and anorexia do, it probably always will.
Thinspiration isn't the only content of this type—aka, self-harm—online, and Tumblr's policy covers all self-harm content, including pro-cutting and pro-suicide blogs, which have also arisen on the site. (Self-harm isn't the only thing people have tried to ban online...for instance, there's also porn, though, that's more of a moral crusade.) But, in general, banning things from the Internet is hard, especially when not everyone agrees. So defeatist attitudes like this one from Yahoo's Virginia Heffernan resonate: "In the end, these wily, protean images are just too hard to police. They’re baffling and cunning, like addictive diseases themselves," she writes. This is something The National Eating Disorders Association's Claire Mysko almost agrees with. "There's no way to eradicate this content from the internet in general, that is an uphill battle," Mysko told The Atlantic Wire.
Yet NEDA's the one working with Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest to get this stuff taken down—NEDA, in fact, asked us to remove certain images from a previous post on this topic. Removing this imagery from the most popular access points is beneficial for those afflicted with or highly susceptible to the disease, say all the eating disorder professionals we spoke with.
But as with anything on the Internet, there is a variety of what falls under the so-called Thinspo umbrella -- not all of the imagery or mantras necessarily represent unhealthy behaviors. For example, our search for "thinspo" on Pinterest a couple months ago yielded, alongside bony arms and starvation tactics, a woman working out wearing a shirt with the following phrase: "Work Hard, Eat Clean, Talk Dirty." That's not a particularly unhealthy lifestyle, as many of our commenters noted, nor does the woman look unhealthily thin. "A lot of these sayings are simply motivational/inspirational and I don't feel they encourage anorexia. They promote healthy living and give people something to strive for," wrote commenter Mitangi Parekh. But living in a community that focuses on body image rather than health turns what looks like a "healthy" workout routine into something more dangerous, explains Katie Heimer, the Community and Education Coordinator for the Multiservice Eating Disorder Association. "It's putting your sense of self into an otherized sense of self," she told The Atlantic Wire, explaining that the conversation focuses not on "health" but on getting others to approve a certain look. Even if the person in the picture doesn't "look" anorexic, tagging it thinspo emphasizes shape and size, rather than health. And for someone with this disease, it could then act as a trigger for some unhealthy behaviors.
NEDA asked us not to post any examples of these "triggering images" for the same reasons it believes those social networks have a responsibility to take down these communities. "We know that a lot of vulnerable people first find out about these sites through articles about their dangers. Of course they can find them on their own, but a direct link within an article makes it that much easier and immediate for them to connect to dangerous content," NEDA's communications manager Maggi Flaherty wrote to us in an email. For someone who is either susceptible to or trying to recover from an eating disorder, coming across these images can present a danger to their health. "The purpose is for people to focus on their bodies and lose weight," Bridget Withlow, a licensed therapist, told The Atlantic Wire. "One risk factor for developing an eating disorder is dieting. If somebody is looking at these things, it just can be a very slippery slope," she continued.
Many of the professionals we talked with mentioned this slippery slope. Looking at images and sayings turns into constant body comparisons and can trigger dangerous behaviors in the most vulnerable. The easier the access points, the more likely those with a propensity to develop the disorder will engage. Which is why Mysko and NEDA and MEDA and Withlow, who works with Academy for Eating Disorders, all agree taking thinspiration off these very popular sites is beneficial for the overall health of those coping with these illnesses. "They are finding a sense of community in these sites, unfortunately it is a community that is keeping them stuck in very harmful and very self destructive behaviors," continues Mysko. "I have actually heard thinspo/pro-ana compared to alcoholism and other addictive behaviors by people who have 'used' it in the past," Heimer told The Atlantic Wire. "And just like alcohol to a non-alcoholic, thinspo images generally wouldn’t have the same power over someone who does not have an eating disorder or negative body image," she said. The solutions have their parallels, too. Alcoholics Anonymous recommends alcoholics don't partake in the vice. That's the hope with groups fighting eating disorders and thinspiration, too.
But even proponents of the takedowns admit it's a battle they cannot win. "There's no way to ensure that, or eradicate this content from the internet in general; that is an uphill battle," said Mysko. This is the attitude of James Watson, who has taken the opposite tactic with his site Pretty Thin, "The world's largest eating disorder community and forum," which has a section called Thinsponation that both explains (pictures included) and acts as a forum for pro-ana thinspiration. "I think it's impractical. I think it's the same concept as trying to burn down books, you don't burn down the idea by burning down the book," Watson told The Atlantic Wire. "It doesn't address the entire issue at all. Thinspiration comes in so many other media, it's not just the social networks," he continues.
With his burning book reference, Watson also hints at the censorship issues here. These sites have the right to change their terms of agreement, but those who've had their content taken down often cry censorship. "Banning certain categories of content may pave the way for greater censorship down the line," adds Styleite's Hilary-George Parkin. As we saw with Alexa Chung, whose photo of her skinny self got repurposed without her permission for thinspiration, at times discerning the harmful stuff from photos of thin or healthy people can be difficult. "It is a tricky line," acknowledged Mysko, who says NEDA works with these sites to define said line. "We don't want to stigmatize any thin person. That's where it can get very tricky," added Heimer. Yet, they both still advocate for removal policies. "Some of the cases are much more clear cut. If there are specific instructions for purging or these more extreme starvation images, I think there is something to be said for controlling those things," continued Heimer.
Pretty Thin provides an alternative way of handling these images more in line with the Indiana University study's findings, offering what Watson tells us is a forum moderated by anonymous professionals. He would not give any more detail about these professionals, saying only that there are PhD's and mental health professionals among them. The site extends beyond thinspiration, with all sorts of discussion pages on topics ranging from bulimia stories to recovery forums, with an overall mission of providing a safe place for non-judgmental conversation. "A site about community, support, and friendship" reads the site banner. "If you shut them down you're closing that channel of communication, there is no discussion anymore," he explained. "My goal is to give them a place to speak openly." Watson claims he has never had an eating disorder himself, and says he took over the site from a friend, its founder, who suffered from one. "I took it over for her, in hopes of creating a community of people who support one another, and feel accepted in the arms of one another," he writes at Pretty Thin.
Though Watson hopes his readers eventually get help, the site doesn't push them to it, something the researchers at IU would not agree with. "We need to see what about (the pro-ana blogs) is drawing people into the community and design blogs for recovery that offer the same kind of useful information so the recovery will work," researcher Daphna Yeshua-Katz wrote. Waton's approach, however, is more hands-off than that. And, at the same time his site might actually harm people because of it. Though Watson doesn't think having images of emaciated women on a site for women dealing with body issues compromises that ultimate goal. "I don't think the images being on Pretty Thin are damaging to people—they [the images] come from other sources."
Heimer says it doesn't quite work that way: "Eating disorders do tend to be somewhat 'contagious' among communities," she said in an email. "People who are around people with negative body image and disordered behaviors are more likely to develop negative body image or disordered behaviors, or to have those things bolstered if they already exist," she continued. Having those images on a community site like that is, in fact, quite damaging. And the anonymity only makes it worse, adds Mysko. "There's so much shame associated with eating disorders and self harm. They're looking to connect with others, but they dont always want to come out and be public about it," she told us. "[Thinpsiration] is a way for them to connect in an anonymous forum," she added.
It is clear, though, that the bans don't address the larger cultural issue. Our fat-phobic society is obsessed with body-image. (Remember when the media freaked out over Ashley Judd's "puffy face"?) And we reward and glamorize the ultra-thin. The Internet is really just a reflection of these overall cultural values. That's why Watson has what he thinks is a better solution. "My ideal would be for people to stop talking about thinspiration as the issue," he said, citing Vogue as "the number one" thinspiration today. The total-takedown, anti-thinspo crowd wouldn't disagree completely. NEDA, MEDA, and Withlow all mentioned a paradigm shift as the ideal. The focus should change from "skinny" to "healthy." "If you're talking about someone being too thin, it's keeping it within the same language," said Heimer. "Change some of the dialogues... not just taking the images down, but putting out messages that will counteract the overall cultural continuum."
It appears there is some movement in this direction, as Vogue recently announced it would not "knowingly" work with anorexic models. And just six months ago Vogue Italia removed a photo of model Karlie Kloss because it was circulating on the thinspo blogs. There's no evidence that the string of thinspo bans led to Vogue's new policy, nor is there evidence that Vogue's move will change anything, but, it's a start.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.