Pro-anorexia (or “pro-ana”) groups have been around online for over a decade, and we first discussed them here five years ago. More recently, with the rise of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, these groups have found a new life. Often associated with the label “thinspiration,” these groups elevate the idea of being thin to a virtual religion.
People who are all about thinspiration engage in disordered eating in order to be as thin as possible — a common symptom of anorexia. But they don’t see it as a disorder or a problem, making this an insidious problem.
Nonetheless, such eating and self-image problems can result in health problems, even putting the individual’s life at risk.
Some people have sought to get common words or terms that people engaged in thinspiration use banned from social networking websites. One such woman is Torri Singer, a broadcast journalism major who has recently begun a petition to get such terms banned from Twitter.
Many social networks have already climbed aboard the bandwagon, including Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest. And while such policies have been implemented, thinspiration content is still easily found on many of these networks. I suspect that’s one of the challenges of implementing a policy like this — it’s extremely difficult to police, especially if people can just slightly alter the terms they use to talk about these issues.
But that hasn’t stopped Torri from putting Twitter on notice.
“[I want] to raise awareness about the harm of destructive thinspiration messages, and to prompt Twitter to make real change in order to stop the spread of this preventable growing trend,” Singer recently told me. Her inspiration for this campaign came from family:
My sister suffered on and off with eating disorders in her early adult life, so preventing other intelligent, strong, and beautiful girls from forming or elongating their disorders has always held a place of importance in my life. I know how difficult it is to be a girl and have constant exposure to beauty ideals, I don’t think we need any more pressure from self-generated pro-eating disordered “lifestyle” hashtags.
“But they have made the first steps toward taking action and being responsible for the safety of their users.”
She also addressed people trying to change the spelling of terms they were using to get around the service’s policing efforts: “Instagram’s initial attempt to limit thinspiration led users to create new spellings (such as thynspo). Instead of giving up on the effort, Instagram revised the policy, stating it will disable “any account or hashtag found to be encouraging eating disorders.”
“The first step is ensuring that these messages are not readily available, and that is where policy change comes into play and really matters.”
Of course, trying to stamp out discussion of a topic on the Internet is impossible, given the hundreds of millions of websites, social networks, forums, and online communities. “By reducing the number of mainstream venues where these pro eating disorder messages are displayed,” Singer says, “we are reducing the exposure, and therefore the dangerous behavior that results (or continues) because of these online interactions.”
I agree — efforts such as Singer’s can make a perceivable impact on the popular, mainstream sites, reducing the likelihood of exposing this ideology to a new, naive audience. Especially when that site is a social network as large as Twitter.
“Banning thinspiration terminology means less accessibility to damaging phrases, encouragement, and images that propel disorders,” notes Singer. “It will prevent susceptible people from forming eating disorders, and people recovering/struggling with eating disorders from exposure to triggers.”
“In my mind, just getting people to have this conversation means that it has been some degree of successful. It is really amazing to see people who sign generating comments about their personal stories and their struggles. Many have said that thinspiration has been a big trigger in their lives and that they support any effort to ban it from impacting others like them.”
Efforts such as Singer’s are a good attempt at bringing attention to the problem and helping people understand that use of these kinds of keywords and hashtags only reinforce the disordered behavior — on a scale that wasn’t readily possible just five years ago. We applaud and support Singer’s petition and efforts to help reduce thinspiration messaging on mainstream social networks.
We encourage you to sign the petition:
Twitter: Restrict use of thinspiration language and hashtags