I was 16 years old the first time I came across a pro-anorexia website, covertly looking at the web page in case my parents came in. Dozens of images flooded the screen—girls in underwear with jutting clavicles, the skin over their ribs stretched taut. Pictures of A-list celebrities and nameless models alike were plastered across a variety of other pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites. The websites fawned over these women, labeling them as “thinspiration,”or “thinspo,” for short. The forums proclaimed anorexia and bulimia were lifestyles and provided tips on how to lose weight.
For a couple hours a day, I would feed myself on these images and bits of information. At the time, I disliked my body and didn’t know better. After limiting my calorie count to just 800 a day—less than half of the minimum 1,800 recommended by the USDA—only made me feel worse, I quit and never went back to the websites again.
My story was an easy one. Other people’s stories are harder.
Today, the world of pro-anorexia, pro-bulimia, and thinspo is expanding from stand-alone websites to various social media platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr. More and more people in these “eating disorder communities” are using Tumblr and hashtags on Twitter like “pro-ana,” “pro-mia,” and “purging,” in addition to keeping tabs on how many calories they eat a day and how close they are to their UGW—ultimate goal weight. With just the click of a button, these sufferers can easily find the same photos I did.
These communities are catering to a population of young people, overwhelmingly women, who are insecure, struggle with their body image, and may suffer from eating disorders. The media has been in an uproar over these communities, wondering what social media platforms should do. The debate boils down to a single question: to block or not to block? Facebook, the world’s largest social network, has almost completely obliterated all pro-ana and pro-mia groups from their website. Instagram, on the other hand, has begun to monitor these communities more passively; if users search for hashtags like “bulimia,” “ana,” or “thinspo,” a graphic content warning and a link to the National Eating Disorders website appear—though users can still click through the link and see the enabling images and phrases.
“If [social media platforms] begin censoring content other than that, then they begin restricting some of the only outlets these girls have to vent,” Adrienne Hein wrote over Skype. Hein, who is based in Ann Arbor, Mich., is the creator and owner of Fitspo.net and the manager of its Twitter and Facebook accounts. Fitspo.net is a form of “fitspiration,” a movement which typically focuses more on healthy eating and exercise as opposed to starvation.
While online forums are easily accessible, they aren’t the only spaces for venting, according to Dr. Evelyn Attia, the director of Columbia’s Center for Eating Disorders. Online forums and treatment (which often includes individual or group therapy) might provide venues for sufferers to vent, but medical attention can counteract the dangers of eating disorders where online forums can perpetuate or worsen them. “When a group of people who are ill get together, it’s possible that there’s some kind of comfort in the shared symptoms instead of connections around the shared struggle to overcome the symptoms,” says Attia. She later adds, “It is the challenge of all clinicians to help people move forward and not stay where they are, or worse, move backward.”
After talking to Sydney, a 16-year-old girl in Ontario who keeps a pro-ana Tumblr, Attia’s statement makes perfect sense. Thanks to her Tumblr, Sydney and other girls (whom she calls her “ana-buddies”) encourage each other across cyberspace to achieve their weight goals. To Sydney, eating disorders are a lifestyle—a lifestyle that helps her get closer to achieving her ultimate goal of being thin. I asked her what she had to say about the consequences of consuming only 500 calories a day. She explicitly acknowledged that “pro-ana is not necessarily healthy because you can die from it.” But in spite of this, “I don’t care that it is not the healthiest choice. I lose weight fast this way.”
How can we counteract this virtual enabling? Britney Cutler, who manages a Tumblr with a directory of all the fitspiration Tumblrs from her home in San Diego, is unsure of where she stands. To an extent, she believes that social media platforms’ efforts to make it more difficult to access pro-eating disorder communities could be “a good thing.” “Obviously, there’s Google and the Internet, so if people want to [find thinspiration], they can,” she says. “But it’s a lot more difficult than if you’re on a Tumblr for 18 hours a day and you can just click on ‘track tag’ for ‘pro-ana,’ ‘pro-mia,’ or ‘purge.’”
That being said, Cutler is very much opposed to censorship in any form. Both Hein and Cutler expressed fears of a “slippery slope,” since blocking the existence of these tags, pictures, or communities could present a danger to free speech. Cutler further nuances the critiques of pro-ana and pro-mia by pointing out that the existence of the tags isn’t necessarily “bad”—one of the friends who inspired her to be fit regularly re-blogs eating disorder recovery posts and inspirational messages and then tags them with “pro-ana” and “pro-mia,” so the very people who are searching for thinspiration instead stumble upon much more positive content.
Blocking pro-ana and pro-mia from social media might seem like a quick solution, but one thing remains clear: Their existence is only a fraction of the problem of eating disorders. In Attia’s words, whether a person has constant access to the Internet and thinspiration websites or lives in a small isolated place makes little difference: “It’s important for everyone to realize that no one’s protected from eating disorders.”