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Thinspiration: only part of the problem

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thinspiration, eating disorders,

By Thea Raisbeck.

A petition to ban ‘thinspiration’ hashtags on Twitter has admirable intentions, but won’t stop the rise in eating disorders.

The petition, started by American student Tori Singer, is calling for Twitter to “restrict the use of thinspiration language and hashtags currently circulating the twittersphere”.

For the uninitiated, ‘thinspiration’ and pro eating disorder (Pro-Ed) sites and groups encourage extreme thinness as a desirable goal and advocate for eating disorders as a lifestyle choice.

Users find support to entrench their illness; sharing tips for suppressing the appetite or hiding signs of the disorder from others.

Thinspiration and Pro-Ed sites are nothing new.

Many years ago, when I was at the height of my struggle with anorexia, Pro-Ed content could be found – if you looked hard enough – on Yahoo! Groups or in the Livejournal community.

Concern over these sites is also nothing new: in 2001 Yahoo! banned around 115 Pro-Ed sites or communities, with AOL and MSN following suit shortly after.

Twelve years later, as internet use and social media burgeoned, Pro-Ed sites have increased exponentially.

A recent study has indicated that there are now over 500 such sites on the internet, the majority set up by sufferers, many of whom are under 18.

The sprawl of social media has made the dissemination of thinspiration that much easier, and Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest have all attempted to prohibit or limit the use of Pro-Ed content.

These measures have met with varying degrees of success, with many sites a kind of ‘thinspiration by any other name’.

Despite the images these groups share, which deify eating disorders and sanctify the prominence of bones, anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder knows it is a painful, isolating and almost unequivocally miserable way to exist.

And it is this sense of isolation and despair that Pro-Ed sites often speak to.

Claire Mysko, of the National Eating Disorders Association, claims that ‘young people who are prone to disordered eating…feel very isolated, so this world…provides a community and a sense of belonging’.

Yet, it is undoubtedly the case that Pro-Ed sites also allow sufferers to remain deeply rooted in their illness.

One study revealed that 61 per cent of sufferers who visited Pro-Ed sites ‘engaged in new weight reduction or purging methods’.

Any attempt to limit the spread of thinspiration communities should therefore not be discredited and it is certainly the case that social media sites have an obligation to ensure responsible content.

However, we cannot simply ban these sites without appreciating the – unmet – psychosocial needs they may be fulfilling, or without positing an alternative.

The effectiveness of punitive ‘banning’ measures has been the subject of some concern.

Susan Ringwood, of Eating Disorder charity B-eat, worries that such pressure may drive anorexic networks underground, ‘stoking their sense of persecution and making it harder for help to reach them’.

The way we talk about Pro-Ed sites is also of concern.

If we express disgust, shock and horror at these communities there is a danger we are replicating the stigma already faced by eating disorder sufferers in wider society.

It is surely more productive to think of what can replace the need these sites are fulfilling.

We need to look at the complex etiology of eating disorders rather than relying on the erroneous assumption that looking at images of thin women causes the problem.

Thinspiration is the product of a culture that praises absence: the absence of flesh, of wrinkles, of body hair.

It is not the cause.

The images used on Pro-Ed sites largely come from a fashion industry in which fatigue from starvation is the norm.

The proliferation of these images, and the ease with which such images can be shared through social media, ratifies the idea that this is how people with eating disorders look.

In reality, anorexia is the rarest of the eating disorders, affecting only around 10 per cent of all sufferers, yet it is the most publicised, the most mythologised and the most representative form of the disorder.

Sadly, razor-sharp hip bones and paper-thin flesh are more likely to generate interest than an outwardly ‘normal’ looking woman who is on the verge of a gastric rupture due to incessant self-induced vomiting.

And this is why we need to increase awareness of eating disorders – in all forms – and cease focusing solely on physical emblems of the disorder.

Reports that eating disorder admissions were up 16 per cent in 2012 have been attributed by experts to late diagnosis.

Perhaps dieting and thinness have been normalised to the extent that they are coded as typical ‘feminine’ behaviour so go unnoticed.

Perhaps stereotypes and misrepresentation have lead many doctors to assume that if a patient is not a white, middle class teenage girl they can’t possibly be anorexic.

Much of my early treatment path was hampered by professionals who refused to see a problem as I had not yet reached that arbitrary ‘anorexic’ weight.

I sought solace in online communities, but was fortunate enough to stumble upon a pro-recovery site that, without hyperbole, probably kept me alive.

There are many great pro-recovery sites out there where members can still share their pain and seek solace with those who understand.

The difference is no one pretends that eating disorders are anything other than they are.

Most people will not have heard of webiteback, proud2beme, FYOURED, or the Something Fishy website.

They do not create ghoulish headlines so most people remain unaware of their existence.

Pro recovery sites are not a panacea.

Glancing through a slideshow of healthy body affirmations isn’t going to make a chronic anorexic immediately pick up a fork and start eating.

They are, however, our best alternative.

Wider promotion of such sites – and more promotion of the idea that eating disorders are only superficially about food and weight – is probably the most effective antidote to a seemingly unstoppable tide of aggravating imagery.

We need to tear down the myth that emaciation is natural and can be achieved by any other means than control, starvation and unending amounts of pain.

  1. A particularly horrible twist on this was a report, admittedly in Daily Mail, last week in which model talent scouts were hanging out at anorexic recovery clinics to talent spot – one girl so debilitated by starvation that she couldn’t stand and is in a wheelchair.

  2. Thea Raisbeck says:

    Hi Heather. Yes, I saw that report. In some of the studies I have read about Pro-Ed sites, particularly the one by Emma Bond, it appears there is also a danger from men targeting vulnerable women for ‘skinny porn’. It is all very disturbing, particularly considering how vulnerable having an eating disorder makes you. Any overtures, such as offers of modelling, are sure to validate many sufferers and potentially salve their cripplingly low self esteem.

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