Health With a Capital H
Thinspo Bans: Small Steps Toward Big Change
May 9, 2012
Contributed by Kristin Blank, Writer/Editor III
In recent weeks, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram—three social media sites experiencing an explosion of popularity—banned “thinspo” and “pro-ana” images. These are images of usually female bodies that are thin to the point of emaciation. People post them to provide “thinspiration” to achieve the weight loss that comes with anorexia.
National media coverage thus far has been skeptical as to the bans’ ability to effect any real change in those who gravitate to thinspo images and blogs. While some tags related to thinspo have been disabled, others still work. Instagram has added a disclaimer to these tags that directs people to the National Eating Disorders Association. Some media outlets are crying censorship, and the general consensus is that the pro-ana community will simply move to other platforms with no such bans.
These media outlets are missing the point. This sentiment implies a “they're just going to do it anyway, so why try to stop them?” mentality, and that is no way to effect public health change. No doubt the people who operated thinspo Tumblr pages will migrate to other platforms. But the ban on these images may prevent a 13-year-old who is casually searching these increasingly popular sites from stumbling onto a world that promotes unhealthy body image and poor self-worth.
The Need for Real Community
I know about poor self-image related to weight problems. In 2001, I lost 100 pounds by following Weight Watchers. My weight loss put me squarely in the “healthy” Body Mass Index range. I had been large my whole life—overweight in childhood, obese by the time I hit college. I understand how it feels to live in a body that society labels “wrong,” the rise of hope that someday my body would change, the devastating lows when it didn’t.
Most of all, I understand the feeling of isolation that so many overweight teen girls feel as they watch their friends going on first dates that never materialize for them.
Unlike nearly 10 million females and 1 million males in the United States, I never suffered from an eating disorder, like anorexia or bulimia. But I remember the first time I saw a pro-ana website. It was 2006, 5 years into my life at a healthy weight, around the time that a survey by Optenet reported a 470 percent increase in such websites. A news story on the phenomenon fueled by the widespread use of the Internet piqued my curiosity.
I googled. After a few minutes of browsing the posts where girls—and women—posted words of encouragement to keep their daily food intake below 300 calories, I knew I had to click away. I sensed the danger in these sites, the false sense of community and the hair’s breadth of space between observing out of curiosity and the urge to participate.
It wasn’t the thinspo pictures that caught my attention—those I recognized as skeletal, sickly, deathly. It was the sense of community. The promise of a place to go where people understood self-loathing because of one’s body. These girls were banding together to hang onto thinness, and some were literally dying for it. In fact, for females age 15 to 24 who suffer from anorexia nervosa, the mortality rate associated with the illness is 12 times higher than the death rate of all other causes of death.
Starting the Conversation
If the Pintrest, Instagram, and Tumblr bans have done nothing else, they have brought pro-ana sites and thinspo images into the public consciousness. Getting people talking about pro-ana and thinspo is the first step to change. Much like with suicide, which used to be only whispered about behind closed doors, the public needs to support these troubled girls and connect them to the help they need.
Now, when you google “suicide,” the top of the search results page directs people to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline with the question, “Need Help?” The same should be done for searches for thinspo and pro-ana.
While the bans may not be the answer, they are a starting point. What are your ideas for reaching people who frequent pro-ana and thinspo sites?