Thinspiration: The Most Supportive Online Community You Never Want to Join

Posted by on Aug 4, 2014

TRIGGER WARNING: If pro-ana and pro-mia sites and thinspiration were part of your eating disorder experience, then this post may be triggering for you. As always, there is no mention of calories, weights, overly specific behaviors, etc. Even so, simply reading about these sites could evoke distressing memories. Please be mindful.

Just in case a genetic predisposition, a thin-obsessed culture, and any number of life stressors weren’t enough to potentially spark a life-threatening eating disorder, thinspiration can help ensure such fates.

The Internet is a mixed bag when it comes to eating disorders. Advocacy organizations such as the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) and the National Organization of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) flood the web with invaluable resources and information. Unfortunately, groups with an opposing message have also taken up residence online.

Websites known as pro-ana, pro-mia, or pro-ED (meaning, pro-anorexia, pro-bulimia, and pro-eating disorder) have been around nearly as long as the Internet. Between the capability to search for like-minded individuals and the ability to anonymously connect with these groups any time, anywhere, the Internet is the perfect haven for camaraderie in a non-treatment setting. What makes these groups problematic is that they become fellowships that exist for they very purpose of encouraging dangerous eating behaviors.

Just how toxic each site intends to be varies. Some deny that they actively encourage eating disorders, arguing that their forums are meant to provide a space to discuss eating and body image issues openly without being judged or told to get help. Other sites proudly affirm that they are pro-ED in every sense of the term. They insist that eating disorders are lifestyle choices, not mental illnesses, and go so far as to offer weight-loss tips and instructions on restricting, purging, and the like. Members compare (and compete about) how much they’ve eaten on a given day, commiserate after binging, and even post their individual weight statuses, including low and high weights, as well as goal weights.

Thinspiration

Pinterest displays a warning from NEDA for certain search terms.

Among the many dangerous trends that have resulted from these sites is thinspiration, or thinspo, which are images of thin or emaciated women posted for the sake of motivating continued weight loss. Once just a subcategory of pro-ana, thinspiration has taken off as a distinctive entity. These wildly popular images, which have found homes on Tumblr blogs and Pinterest boards, range from being blatantly pro-ana (showing women with prominent ribs or protruding hip bones) to parading under the guise of “healthy” and “clean” eating coupled with “fitness” (the twin of thinspiration is “fitspiration”). And they market themselves scarily well, coming up with catchy brands such as the “bikini bridge” and the renowned “thigh gap.”

ANAD and other recovery organizations caught on quickly, and by 2007, their awareness campaigns prompted companies such as Yahoo and Microsoft to ban pro-ana and thinspiration sites. More recently, Tumblr, working in conjunction with NEDA, banned self-harm and pro-ana blogs and now redirect users who search for these terms to recovery information and resources. Pinterest and Instagram have done likewise, updating their policies to ban pro-eating disorder or self-harm content.

Unfortunately, trying to keep up with the online world is nearly impossible. There are far too many users proliferating this material to ever ban all of them. Many sites deal with this reality by posting awareness banners to these sites, rather than attempting to ban every pro-ana and thinspiration group. For instance, a search on Pinterest for thinspiration leads to a message from NEDA cautioning that eating disorders are mental disorders that can cause serious, life-threatening health problems. The NEDA website and helpline number follow. The only problem is that you can scroll past the message to continue on to the thinspo content you were originally searching for.

To me, the scope and accessibility of pro-ana material is horrifying. These sites were bad enough when I first stumbled across them nearly ten years ago. Restricting my caloric intake was pretty intuitive, but these sites taught me nearly every other eating disorder trick, such as how to prevent hunger and evade family or social meals. And that was still in the days of flip-phones and shoddy dial-up connections. I shudder at the thought of what a Smartphone and this now-ubiquitous material could trigger in the hands of a sick and lonely girl like I was.

Nevertheless, there is a critical truth at the core of these communities. We learn in treatment that our eating disorders serve some purpose. They consist of negative behaviors, but they bring about a positive need—comfort, stress relief, stability and identity. They key to recovery is to figure out what purpose your eating disorder serves and to find healthy ways to achieve that purpose, rather than harmful ones.

On the face of it, pro-ana is a league of self-destruction. But look a little closer and you will see a community of individuals starving for the reassurance that they are not alone. Behind the need to connect over numbers and diet regimens is the need to connect with peers, to share experiences with like-minded individuals, and to normalize the thing that causes both agonizing fascination and crushing shame. The need to feel connection and to know that we are worthy of inclusion is innate. If anything, the women and men, girls and boys on these sites need those things even more, because they have an illness that by definition plunges them into social isolation. In that state, you will yoke yourself to the first person to tell you that you’re are welcome just as you are.

Pro-ana sites and thinspiration are dangerous and need to be stopped. But the people who run them or visit them should never be demonized. Everyone with an eating disorder falls on some spectrum of recovery—that includes “stage zero,” denying that you have a problem whatsoever. But even stage zero carries the potential for recovery. Everyone with that potential deserves our compassion and support.

Read various organizations’ statements about thinspiration and pro-ana and pro-mia websites:

National Eating Disorders Association

Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders

Academy for Eating Disorders

National Eating Disorder Information Centre (Canada)

UPDATE: The cost of thinspiration and pro-ana

Shortly after I posted this, I read about Elle Holmes, a 15-year-old U.K. girl who committed suicide shortly after viewing pro-ana websites. It was not the first time she had been on these sites, but up until her death, she had apparently shown no sign of depression or distress of any kind. However, a song that she wrote and performed shortly before she died gives some insight into just how much she was tortured by the pro-ana world.

In her memory, Elle’s family has created the Mirror of Hope Foundation to help promote self-esteem in teenagers and tackle the problem of self-harm. In addition, her mother is working to get Elle’s song, “Mirror Mirror,” professionally produced so that it can be shared to raise awareness.

Visit their website and listen to Elle’s song here.

mirrorofhope


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5 Comments

  1. Hello I would like to not see me fat in the mirror and want to help ana , and some tips to withstand hunger. Thank You

    • Me to

  2. Hi, I just really would like to start the pro Ana lifestyle I am to fat and hate myself! But I work at a grocery store. Food srounds me I need help!

  3. hey

  4. hi, im 15 and 160 pounds..
    i just don’t want to see my fat shake when i walk or buy an M or L in the store, I want an S or so..