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‘Thinspiration’ sites should be regulated

Courtesy of Tumblr

Courtesy of Tumblr

When it comes to discussing the rise of eating disorders and body image problems, the typical argument is the blame game: Some target the media for promoting largely unattainable body types, some condemn women for mercilessly judging and criticizing each other, and some accuse men for having unrealistic ideas about how women’s bodies should look.

These finger-pointing conversations obscure the purpose of discussing eating disorders in the first place—to prevent them from developing and help those who have them—and instead allow those who need help to fall through the cracks.

One of these rabbit holes spirals down into the online world of “thinspiration,” which is a community consisting primarily of young girls that promote extreme and potentially deadly methods of weight loss. Thinspiration and its derivatives, pro-ana (pro-anorexia) and pro-mia (pro-bulimia), exist on social media sites like Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter, but also have entire websites dedicated to the cause. These sites use pictures of emaciated girls with “inspirational” quotes atop the images as encouragement.

“Must not eat. Must not eat. Must not eat.”

“Not skinny enough.”

“Skip dinner, end up thinner.”

These are some of the tamer messages presented on thinspiration forums. The posters take pride in the amount of hours they’ve gone without eating and congratulate each other for having eaten, for example, only 500 calories in a day. The community also glorifies protruding collarbones, visible ribcages, jutting hip bones and the “thigh gap,” a visible space between the inner thighs when one is standing with their feet together that recently has gained popularity.

Why would communities like this exist? For those who don’t have an eating disorder or have never had one, the idea of voluntarily engaging in self-destructive behavior and encouraging others to do so seems absurd and unjustifiable. However, those who do have eating disorders and do not want help perceive the thinspiration community as a “safe haven” where others like them feel free to be who they are without being judged or persecuted. The distinction, “those with eating disorders who do not want help,” must be made because these pro-eating disorder (pro-ED) communities are intended solely for people who currently have eating disorders and want motivation to continue living that way.

“Pro-ana sites are for those who are already anorexics, who want to be ‘triggered’ and are looking for advice, tips and support from fellow anorexics to help them become ‘better’ anorexics,” according to the article “Totally in Control,” from the Social Issues Research Center.

This mentality of choice further increases the dangers of the pro-ana communities. Rather than perceiving eating disorders as illnesses, pro-ana websites and social media pages celebrate them as a lifestyle for the strong-willed.

In response to the growing popularity of these communities, some social media sites have chosen to prevent and block users from posting content that promotes self-destructive behavior. In February of 2012, Tumblr announced a new policy stating they would remove pro-self-harm blogs and prevent the content featured on them from being posted. They also created public service announcements that pop up after searches of self-harm tags such as “pro-ana” and “pro-mia.”

The public service announcement reads, “Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that when left untreated, can cause serious health problems, and at their most severe can even be life-threatening. For treatment referrals, information and support, please contact the National Eating Disorders Association’s Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or www.nationaleatingdisorders.org.”

Soon after, Pinterest announced its own policy regulating the posting of self-harm content, and Twitter is currently under pressure to regulate similar content.

Despite these measures, online thinspiration communities, both on Tumblr and Pinterest, continue to thrive. A straightforward “thinspo tumblr” or “pro-ana tumblr” search on Google will generate plenty of content that violates the policies of those social media sites. However, the relative lack of success at hindering self-harmful posts should not prevent the continued regulation of self-destructive user content.

While it may seem futile to block pro-ana content on the Internet, greater harm would come if such content were not regulated. Critics argue that blocking pro-eating disorder content will only allow the community to move from one place to another. However, trying to control their proliferation will provide at least some impediment against the websites’ survival and growth.

Additionally, if more and more people increasingly put pressure on social media sites and site host companies to regulate such content, greater awareness can be raised about the existence of the thinspiration community. In turn, healthy conversations about eating disorders can emerge between doctors, families, friends and society in general.

Today we hear about the rise of eating disorders and learn about them in passing in health class, but we don’t encourage open discussions about the topic. The subject of eating disorders is still very much a taboo, murky topic, and as a result, those who have it feel stigmatized and turn to the dark corners of the online thinspiration community for a sense of belonging. Breaking down these dangerous communities and promoting healthy lifestyles instead would be a step toward healing our society’s tortured relationship with food and body image.

Maral Margossian is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at mmargossian@umass.edu.

Comments
5 Responses to “‘Thinspiration’ sites should be regulated”
  1. Genghis Khan says:

    In other words, I don’t like this part of free speech, so they need to be censored.

    Be careful of the censorship demons; once loosed, they rapidly turn on their creators. I remember some years ago when a Canadian law was passed regulating pornography. It was cheered by all the usual leftist suspects, including many far-left feminists. What was the VERY FIRST application of the law? A lesbian/feminist bookstore.

  2. mike says:

    How should this content by regulated? I have no problem with websites themselves regulating the content. I have a problem with regulation imposed by a legislative body.

  3. Emily says:

    You should’ve included a trigger warning on this article.

  4. Alex says:

    Censorship and restricting free speech and freedom of expression NEVER HELPS ANYONE. Censorship under the guise of “safety” is just a lie and nothing more.
    Certain ED websites exist so that people WHO ALREADY HAVE EATING DISORDERS have a place to talk with one another about things we can’t talk about to anyone else. Its not “motivation to keep living that way”— its motivation to stay alive in spite of mental illness. We’re not encouraging each other to get sicker, we’re encouraging each other to manage our lives the best we can, even when suffering with anorexia.
    While you might be offended by the thinspiration websites— that’s sort of your problem. I don’t eat meat, but I don’t believe that hunters shouldn’t be allowed to post photos of their captures.
    This article is disgusting to me. Your particularly nasty type of judgmental attitude is part of what makes it even harder for ED sufferers to talk about their illness and their needs.

  5. The ProAna Movement remains an issue fraught with a great degree of controversy. Extensive, virulent opposition and widespread censorship efforts have steadily progressed since these unconventional ED Support Communities became known to mainstream society in 2001. Most of the original communities have been destroyed altogether, and for the few which remain, the environment online has become increasingly hostile. The big question is, are these efforts to obliterate “potentially triggering material” — the much-touted catch phrase of pro-censorship parties — working to combat the “problem,” as they see it? The answer is a resounding “NO.” I am far from surprised by this.
    When confronted with the silence-versus-tolerance dilemma, the majority of social networking platforms have responded by banning and censoring eating-disordered individuals who do not conform to the status quo: churning out conventional recovery rhetoric and ED-neutral platitudes are good and right; expressing yourself fully and openly is bad and wrong, for you may potentially ‘trigger’ someone else.
    The media hype-driven; ED treatment center-backed approach of censure, all in the name of minimizing exposure of allegedly ‘at-risk’ populations, is not only futile (persecuted, oppressed individuals will relocate and form their own communities — this is where ProAna came from in the first place), it can be supremely damaging. Facebook, AOL, Yahoo, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest and similar communities have banned content and censored all but the most benign of discussion regarding the ED experience, and the current witch hunt du jour is Twitter.
    Regardless of which side of this issue one stands, some facts remain abundantly clear: ED’s have extremely poor treatment accessibility and efficacy, resulting in poor prognostic indicators and outcomes. We do not have all the answers, and while I do understand the motivation behind both sides of the argument [for and against censorship], I ultimately find the pro-censorship approach extremely damaging and unproductive in terms of supporting those Living with Eating Disorders. Intolerant opposition to any coping strategy other than what mainstream society dictates is horrifically oppressive, silencing and inappropriate in my opinion. It is difficult enough for those Living with an illness which is experienced beneath a veil of perpetual shame and inadequacy and tends to lead to silence and isolation. When these people dare to reach out; to connect; to come forward and speak of their plight, how is it constructive to place constraints which ultimately force them either to present a lie on the surface, or alienate them altogether? This is the reason my research began in the first place, and I can confidently state that the alleged risk-to-benefit ratio leans far on the beneficial side with respect to Alternative-Approach ED Support Communities.
    MORE INFO:
    The Fallacy Of Censorship: Why I Oppose Blocking ProAna, Thinspiration Tags On Social Media Sites:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XobnF9uXNNI
    Understanding The ProAna Movement I: Background and Precipitating Factors
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GYy1_zNvkHA
    Understanding The ProAna Movement II: History, Development and Censorship

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