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April 09, 2012

The dark and creepy world of "thinspiration"

Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor

Before I take you into this warped universe, a warning: it's a bleak and frightening place to be. This online society is comprised of a variety of "thinspiration" (aka "thinspo") blogs and websites, and they're all slightly different, but all share a loathing for fat (even for a few extra pounds) and claim that their goal is to inspire people to lose weight. The sites feature admiring photos of emaciated women, and long lists of so called "mantras" (aka hectoring and often hackneyed advice) for becoming — and staying — thin.

Mythinspo, for example, includes a list of "Reasons not to eat," including:

"Starving is an example of excellent willpower."

"When you start to get dizzy and weak, you're almost there."

The site Skinnygossip offers a daily "Starving tip of the day." Here, starving is a good thing. Examples include:

  • "Think of your stomach pains in a whole new light. Your stomach doesn’t hurt because you are hungry, that burning feeling is fat melting off of you…."
  • "Learn to LOVE that empty feeling in your stomach. Trust me, you’ll feel disgusting when it starts filling up again."
  • "Pay close attention to other girl’s bodies. Pick them apart – try to find faults even with the best bodies. Then apply these high standards to yourself."
  • "Thinspo is your best friend. You think you’ve lost weight? Check out some fashion models or skinny celebrities online and you’ll realize that you can probably do better."

Some of the thinspo sites try to distance themselves from pro "ana" (anorexia) and "mia" (bulimia) websites, which frankly celebrate eating disorders. The blog, Proanalifestyle, for example, bears the slogan, "Anorexia is a lifestyle, not a disease, and offers "Thin Commandments" including these:

  • If you aren't thin, you aren't attractive;
  • Being thin is more important than being healthy;
  • Thou shall not eat fattening food withouat punishing afterwards; and
  • Being thin and not eating are signs of true will power and success

But all of these sites feature photos of pencil-thin models and celebrities, and lurid pictures of skeletal women — many of them scantily clad and provocatively posed, which give the sites a sleazy, voyeuristic quality. Most troubling of all, the thinspiration and pro-ana and mia sites all share an unchallenged assumption that appearance is all that matters in life. The authors of the sites (and, sadly, their readers, based on the comments) seem to consider looks — specifically a slender, model-thin body — the sole measure of an individual's worth.

It's tempting to dismiss this frightening world as just another bizarre online subculture — except that eating disorders are on the rise among children and adolescents, according to a 2010 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics. (Eating disorders are on the rise among older women as well).

And a CNN infographic, (based on research by the National Eating Disorders Association) points out that, from 1999 to 2006, the total number of eating-disorder related hospitalizations increased by 18 percent; among children younger than 12 years old, hospitilizations increased 119 percent. The infographic also reveals that 42 percent of first through third grade girls (yes — that’s ages 6 to 8!) say they want to be thinner.

There is also growing evidence that social media is playing a significant role in how girls view their bodies — and themselves. A recent study by the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, for example, draws a link between Facebook use and negative body image.

On the website, Proud2Bme.org, which was launched by the National Eating Disorders Association to provide positive body image messages and support for teens, teenagers describe the connection between social media and negative body image in stark terms:

“When looking at images of girls in a magazine almost all of us know that they are altered electronically to appear perfect. When it comes to social media such as Facebook, most believe that they are looking at raw pictures, or ‘real girls.’ Whether this is true or not, they are ultimately used as a standard of comparison. –Mary

"People get positive attention in the world by losing weight. And you can do it to an even greater extent on Facebook.” --Anika, 18

“I think that social media platforms hurt because young people are now having their bodies judged online in addition to being judged in person, which causes them to feel trapped.” --Jen, 17

As awareness of the influence of social media on body image grows, popular social media sites like Tumblr, and Pinterest have taken steps to discourage "thinspo" content on their sites. (Although, as the Huffington Post points out, thinspo followers aren't going away — they're just migrating to different venues).

Discouraging thinspo content is a start, but I wish the "thinspiration" bloggers would clean up their act as well, or better yet, take their disturbing obsessions offline all together. Of course, eating disorders are the result of a complex host of factors; it's impossible to put all the blame on specific websites, or social media in general. But the thinspiration community is cheerleading a dangerous and growing epidemic, and I've seen the results in my own community. Over the last year alone, a friend's daughter was asked to leave her college because of chronic bulimia. Another teen I know, who’s always been funny and outspoken, has became pale and withdrawn, her spirit and teenage curves whittled away by anorexia. For a third girl, a bright, engaged high school sophomore, vomiting after meals has become part of her daily routine.

Every parent I know worries that her daughter may be next. My 13-year-old is conscious of her weight; she worries aloud about it on occasion and not long ago I found a note she'd written to herself and left on her dresser: "Don't eat after school!" But she has a strong community of friends, and many interests — including soccer, animals, art, reading, and writing, and I'm hoping that it is these passions — not the size of her waist or a number on a scale — that continue to comprise the measure of her self-worth.

I'd love to hear about your daughters and sons, and whether you see a link between social media and negative body image.



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Yet another reason not to allow underage girls onto Facebook. I chose not to put my daughter into gymnastics for similar reasons. While her (lack of) height would have made her highly desirable in gymnastics, I really didn't want to introduce her to body image issues in kindergarten or before.

But I see parents all the time allowing their children to simply "pose" for pictures, rather than be *doing* something. Let's not get them into the mentality of modeling or photography when we should be caring about substance.

The irony is that we live in a country where 1 in 3 third graders are overweight. A large portion of that 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls *have been told by their doctor* to do something about their weight.

The focus should be on being *healthy*.

Stay active -- don't keep your kid out of gymnastics because of body image! Give your kids a variety of good foods, and then send them OUTSIDE TO RUN AROUND.

From the sound of it, you're opposed to all the "thin"spirational sites that encourage being thinner.

Well; we need thin desperately.

See this 15 second slide show of our nations' growing obesity; http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html

We are suffering the OPPOSITE of thin trends in this nation to epidemic proportions. The eating disorders are 99% overeating to 1% undereating.

Before you attack "Thin"spiration, attack "obese"spiration.

Hi Mr. Pike -- I just want to let you know that all of us at GreatSchools really appreciate your insightful comments on our blogs, and we hope you'll keep reading and commenting! In this case, however, I have to take issue with you re: thinspiration. While I agree with you that obesity is a really serious problem,and I support people trying to maintain a healthy weight, these sites encourage self-starvation, and obsession with appearance. You should take a close look at the thinspiration websites -- they're pretty disturbing. I also think it's no coincidence that we have an obesity and an eating disorders epidemic at the same time -- I'm sure they're linked, and I'd love to know more about the connection. Anyway, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, we really appreciate your readership!

My 14 year old daughter is recovering from anorexia. It has been a long and very difficult journey for her and for our entire family. Please realize that current research thinks it's a combination of factors - biological, psychological and environmental that cause eating disorders. While there are many "pro very, very thin" websites out there, your child still gets alot of information from you! How often do we say "oh, I shouldn't eat that, I'm too fat" or "I need to lose 10 pounds, then I will look great in my swimsuit". When my daughter was 5' 8" and under 100 lbs I can't tell you how many people told me and her "you are so beautiful and thin. You should be a model."
When the eating disordered thoughts were the strongest and I needed to distract her (from the meal she had just very, very unwillingly consumed) we played a game "list 5 traits you admire about person x" - the traits were always personality based - funny, kind, hard worker, good at math, loves animals, etc. She chose them, not me. But the goal was for her to see that we love and admire these people for what is on the inside -NOT how they look.
Bottom line - eating disorders are serious illnesses. You wouldn't let your child look at porn. Keep them away from the websites that glorify being thin at any cost.

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