Are Social Media Sites the New Pro-Eating Disorder Communities?

Nicki Karimipour
Nicki Karimipour

By Nicki Karimipour

In the 1990s and 2000s, the Internet was rife with pro-eating disorder websites and their associated content, also known as pro-ana (anorexia) and pro-mia (bulimia) content. This took the form of specialized websites and message boards dedicated solely to sharing tips and tricks for losing weight, extreme exercise routines, and virtual encouragement and support for others experiencing eating disorders or disordered eating issues.

As the media landscape transformed and became increasingly social, users seeking this type of content have not only moved to social media platforms and mobile apps such as Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, but also to microblogging sites like Tumblr and Twitter.

However, the information and messages on Tumblr closely resemble the pro-eating disorder websites of decades past. It appears that users interested in exchanging this type of information have merely switched platforms. Have microblogging sites become the new pro-eating disorder message boards? And if so, what can we do about it?

These were among the many questions I set out to answer in my recent study of Tumblr posts about thinspiration. I analyzed more than 500 posts, ranging in length from just one sentence to multiple paragraphs. These posts were tagged “#thinspiration,” which is a type of content meant to inspire people to engage in weight loss or weight management techniques. Much of the thinspiration content online these days, though masquerading under a professed dedication to health, is not healthy at all, and is used instead to support, justify, or augment a dysfunctional relationship with food, dieting, exercise, or general body dissatisfaction.

In my research, recently presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) conference in San Francisco, the individuals most affected by these images are young women — mostly adolescents and teenagers. This group might be more susceptible to internalizing these messages because of their age, self-esteem, and the nature of their social relationships. We know that sociocultural forces like family, peers, and media can be powerful influences on the way a woman feels about herself, but social media can also play a crucial role.

I chose to analyze Tumblr because this website has exploded in popularity in recent years, especially among the age group statistically most vulnerable to body dissatisfaction and eating disorders: teens and young adults, especially females. In fact, half of Tumblr’s visitors are under the age of 25. According to Internet analytics company comScore, teens aged 12 to 17 are about twice as likely as the average Internet user to visit Tumblr, while 18- to 24-year-olds are about 2.5 times as likely.

These niche communities of peers can inspire young people to get involved in a disordered lifestyle, provide a sense of identity and belonging, and thwart recovery. Research already tells us that active users or observers of these websites are less likely to seek professional treatment for disordered eating as it is.

If the difference between pro-eating disorder sites and Tumblr blogs is the platform, not the content, then how do other microblogging sites fare?

In another study, I examined another microblogging site, Twitter, for tweets about two body image fads that swept the Internet in 2014: the thigh gap and the bikini bridge. User sentiment on Twitter ranged from support to outrage, and the topic proved to be extremely divisive. However, analysis of 500 tweets showed that the majority of users — 68%, in fact — were supportive of these corporeal aspirations and reinforced the desirability of such a body shape. Many users even discussed their methods for trying to achieve a thigh gap, despite the fact that it is simply not possible through diet and exercise.

This Twitter study shared many similarities to Tumblr, especially in terms of gender: Body image fads are framed as a uniquely female problem. Other than the recent social media attention devoted to “dad bod,” most recent body image fads have been targeted toward females: the thigh gap, bikini bridge, collarboning, post-baby bod, and more.

It’s as if these trends were created specifically to inspire women to engage in surveillance, whether of their own bodies or the bodies of others. This scrutiny extends beyond everyday interactions, and takes on a new form online. Though it’s easier than ever to view a diverse array of bodies at the touch of a button, it’s also easier to shame and criticize them from afar. Some women on these sites are policing their own bodies and the bodies of others by posting images harmful to individuals already vulnerable to body dissatisfaction, negative self-image, low self-esteem, and disordered eating patterns.

Some critics have suggested censoring or regulating this type of content in order to shield individuals from their harmful effects. However, is censorship the solution to protecting vulnerable social media users from these messages?

Though both Twitter and Tumblr’s policies claim to remove sexual content and content that supports harmful behaviors such as self-harm, eating disorders, or drug use, these posts are still readily available to anyone who types in some simple search terms into the website. Yes, Tumblr will provide warning messages and a phone number for crisis intervention organizations, such as www.imalive.org and 7 Cups, before allowing people to click through to view the content, but it’s quite accessible regardless.

Indeed, this problem is nothing new in the world of eating disorder–related content — it’s what I like to call the “pop-up weed in the garden problem.” Whenever one site or user is shut down, another pops up in its place like an errant garden weed. Regardless of how you feel about the issue, and despite the often extreme and visually assaulting nature of this content, bloggers retain the freedom to post about whatever they choose. But the truth is that despite the accessibility of this content, it’s difficult not to be disturbed by it, especially if you are exposing yourself to it for a long period of time (like I have to do in order to conduct my research).

In terms of the effect of this kind of media, these images are powerful, especially in the short term. For individuals affected by eating disorders or disordered eating behavior, in addition to seeking professional help, critically examining their social media behavior may be a key component to recovery. For some, avoiding social media entirely (at least in the short term) may be a viable way to avoid harmful content or individuals who don’t aid in the recovery process. For others, they may rely on this content for social support, and may use these platforms and websites to connect with others experiencing a similar problem.

When I talk to college women (not a clinical population) about how they use social media to understand their own bodies, their answers vary. Some say they don’t feel affected by social media, but I wonder how that is possible when this damaging content has become so normative and widespread. Many college women say they can’t log onto Instagram or Facebook without being confronted by photos and content tagged #thinspo and #fitspo (“fitspiration,” an exercise-based version of thinspiration). Unsurprisingly, this makes them uncomfortable, mainly because most of them don’t actively seek it out.

Whenever I talk to these young women, I can’t overstate the importance of media literacy. It is one of the most potent antidotes to body dissatisfaction and negative media effects, which have become ubiquitous with technological advances and the accessibility of social media.

Media literacy is even more crucial when the people we are comparing ourselves to are our friends, peers, and colleagues on our social media accounts — not unknown celebrities or models on the covers of magazines and in advertisements. Comparisons to someone we perceive as “on our level” can have a much stronger psychological effect than generic unknown figures, and research reflects this assertion.

In terms of censorship, attempting to block or ban the content would only serve as an exercise in futility, despite the fact that countries like France have already enacted such laws recently. People on these sites who violate these laws by promoting ultra-thin ideals and encouraging others to engage in extreme dieting may be sentenced to one year in prison and subject to fines upward of €10,000. But even with these measures in place, censoring pro-eating disorder content is like playing a game of cyber Whack-a-Mole, where another post appears the moment one vanishes.

Censorship, then, is not the solution, as this type of content can repeatedly multiply and circulate on multiple Internet platforms. It has been, and will remain, a mainstay of online content.

Understanding these online communities as niche social groups can illuminate them and help individuals who are not affected by eating disorders gain insight. Seeking to first understand these users in terms of their demographic characteristics, mental and psychological diagnoses, comorbid health conditions, and existing social support networks can help clinicians and psychologists design better treatment for these individuals.