Thinspiration. Thinspo. Pro-ana.
All seemingly made up words; all potentially leading to devastating results. Though you may not recognize them, they’re used extensively in the online community of eating disorders. They represent pictures, quotes, and motivation to be thin. To not eat. To harm yourself. There are a shocking number of websites and blogs dedicated to providing “tips” for people with eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. It comes at no surprise that these photos can be both disturbing and powerful. One study showed that girls exposed to these type of pro-ana websites for an hour and a half reported lower self esteem, more image comparison, and seeing themselves as heavier. An hour and a half. Can you imagine the influence these messages have on a young girl that sits at her computer for hours on end?
Now it even goes beyond websites and blogs. “Thinspiration” is popping up all over social media. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr have all had to decide how they’re going to handle it. Last April, the highly visual driven platform Instagram banned certain hashtags, or search terms, that represent these types of negative images. #Thinspiration, #thinspo, #proanorexia, #probulimia, and #loseweight were all banned on Instagram. You can still use these hashtags, but the image won’t show up in any search results. While this doesn’t get rid of the fact that the images are out there for anyone to see, it does make it harder for people to intentionally seek out such photos.
That sounds great in theory, but that’s only five hashtags. There are hundreds, if not more, words that describe the same thing: pro-ana being one, along with pro-mia and pro-ED. (Common words for websites with thinspiration messages.) Not to mention creativity in spelling or using numbers that look like letters to skirt around the banned hashtag. To put in perspective how many more words could have ended up on this banned hashtag list, Data Pack put together an unofficial list that includes 65 hashtags on the variation of the F word. So that’s 65 curse words, but only 5 words depicting harmful behavior. That balance doesn’t quite add up to me. Instagram does state that they don’t tolerate images that portray or promote harmful behavior (including anorexia, bulimia, cutting, suicide, etc) and would ban users that posted such images.
While I side in favor of these hashtags not leading to search results, I’m surprised that #loseweight is included on the list. (So is #instabody.) What about people that use this platform as motivation and inspiration to lose weight for a healthy reason, as opposed to fueling an eating disorder. Couldn’t seeing a picture of a someone who’s in great shape or has just finished a hard workout motivate you to get moving? It does for me. I suppose people looking for the positive kind of support could turn to the more likely #weightloss, but couldn’t the pro-ana users as well? And though these terms are banned, does it really make an impact on protecting a vulnerable population? If they’re dedicated enough to be searching out these hashtags on social media, I’d imagine it’s likely they’d be able to find another source of inspiration.
Oddly enough, other banned hashtags include #iphone, #photography, #instagram, and #IG.
What really needs to happen is increased awareness of disordered eating behaviors and being aware of what our kids are exposed to online. It’s nice that Instagram and other platforms are making an attempt to reduce the spread of these negative images, but it’s not a substitute for paying attention to what our kids (and friends and family members) are doing. Is it really a tech-company that should be taking responsibility for these kind of things, or is it our job to do so on our own, to make our own decisions and censor our own (or our kids) information? I would hope it’s the latter, although if I had a teenage girl (prime eating disorder territory) I’d be pretty grateful she couldn’t click on a #thinspo hashtag and see hundreds of other horrible images. So I guess we all need to do our part to help prevent these devastating diseases and behaviors.
Dr. Lara Pence of The Renfrew Center, an eating disorders treatment program, offers a good suggestion for finding the line of balance between censoring our freedom of speech and our need to get these images eliminated: “‘Fight fire with fire,'” she says, “by posting messages and images online that affirm healthy body image.” She goes on to explain that positive images can be used to “send out alternative messages and help debunk the thin ideal.” She also suggests approaching people you’re concerned about with compassion, by saying something like “I’m curious about something you posted—what’s that about?” More of Pence’s advice can be found at The Fix.
The internet is also a wealth of valuable, helpful resources, such as the National Eating Disorders Association’s list of eating disorder resources and their confidential Helpline 1-800-931-2237. Online Helpline chat is also available.