It began as a curiosity, but soon became an obsession. The blogs on Tumblr, a blogging platform that allows users to post text, images, videos, links, quotes and audio to their own short-form blogs, intrigued the college coed with titles like “Slim and Prim” and “Flawless Beauty.” She followed source links to scores of blogs dedicated to pictures of skinny girls, diet diaries and tips for losing weight—a lethal cocktail of Internet culture known as “thinspiration”—or “thinspo.”
As she got more involved in thinspo blogs, she noticed that some posts were also labeled as “pro-mia” or “pro-ana,” promoting bulimia or anorexia. She found herself drawn to pro-ana blogs and delved even further into the very dangerous trend.
“I started my own pro-ana/thinspo blog in November of my freshman year of college,” said Allison, age 19, in an email interview. “The reason was because I thought it would keep me on track, motivate me when I was slacking.”
Prior to her exposure to the thinspo culture on Tumblr, Allison, who asked to remain anonymous, struggled with her body image but hadn’t dealt with disordered eating habits. After constant exposure to photos of girls with bony hips and protruding collarbones, she decided that she wanted to look “scarily thin,” too.
“I wanted people to think, ‘that girl is too skinny,’” said Allison. “It’s a really warped way of thinking, and scary to think about now, looking back.”
Allison began to pay obsessive attention to her calorie intake and methodically suppressed her appetite—tendencies the pro-ana community called “dieting.” She avoided social situations that might lead to temptation and stayed in her dorm room to avoid the feelings of shame that followed a meal.
“I knew what I was doing was bad,” Allison said, “but I didn’t want to stop.”
As her habits made her more reclusive, she relied on the thinspo support system to keep her focused. When she scrolled through her dashboard or her thinspo blog, she says she felt good about herself. The thinspo community was a haven of anonymous acceptance.
Driven to Be Thin
Kaelee Bates, 23, had a different experience with the same subculture, dealing with more serious effects because of her pre-existing eating disorder. She remembers first starving herself between the ages of eight and nine. She continued to have an unstable relationship to food through her adolescence.
After moving to Seattle, getting married and leaving her church, Kaelee’s battle with anorexia resurfaced in earnest. She was already a Tumblr user and began a separate, secret Tumblr as a journal for her experience with her eating disorder. Stumbling across thinspo content in a similar way to Allison’s experience, she soon became immersed in the pro-ana subculture, adding the content to her eating disorder, or ED, diary.
“My old ED journal was a secret, no one I have known in real life has ever seen it,” she explained. “And I would still be really embarrassed if they did.”
In the two years that she kept a thinspo blog, Kaelee reached some of her most harrowing low-points in her ED struggle. “My hair began falling out, I was passing out each morning, and I took multiple sick days when I began to feel physically unable to move,” said Kaelee. “My husband was crying almost every night when he came home from work and saw me.”
The less-glamorous side effects of anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders such as tooth decay, brittle bones and irregular bowel movements are not usually the subject of thinspo blogs. Thinspo content regularly ignores many important facts about eating disorders or frames them in such a way to make symptoms into enviable achievements.
“If I had never found thinspo I do wonder if my eating disorder would ever have become as bad as it did,” said Kaelee. “I feel like my body image would have still been bad, it just wouldn’t have gotten so low until I began struggling with body dysmorphia.”
What Kaelee went through represents the tragic reality behind what thinspo idolizes. Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening disorders that affect over 10 million women and 1 million men in America each year, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. Treating the tendencies of those suffering from eating disorders as a weight-loss technique belittles their mental, physical and emotional struggle while putting already vulnerable people at risk for developing harmful habits.
“It was terrible to look at, but I was sucked into it and became a part of it. I obsessed over calorie intake and portion sizes,” said Allison. “It’s something I’m really ashamed of.”
The so-called community relies heavily on anonymity and abusive language when users interact with one another. Thinspo bloggers routinely petition others in the online community to send them hurtful comments about how fat, ugly or weak they are to help keep them on track. But the comments from other bloggers usual pale in comparison to each girl’s own commentary on her body image and weight loss journey.
Feelings of guilt, shame, anger, unworthiness and loneliness permeate every piece of content associated with this skinny-obsessed community. Popular image captions like “Be strong and get skinny” send a deceiving message of positive motivation, especially when posted side-by-side with images sporting self-deprecating captions like, “I’m never going to be perfect.”
Road to Recovery
In February 2012, Tumblr attempted to curtail the dangerously growing thinspo trend by broadening their community guidelines to prohibit the glorification or encouragement of eating disorders along with other forms of self-harm. However, the company prioritizes free self-expression on the site so identifying and remedying the thinspo problem has not been easy.
Tumblr believes that people, like Kaelee, who suffer from a true eating disorder deserve to have a safe place to connect with others and talk about their experiences without being subject to censorship. In the section regarding self-harm, the community guidelines state: “Dialogue about these behaviors is incredibly important and online communities can be extraordinarily helpful to people struggling with these difficult conditions.”
Having a community that helps relieve the isolation and desperation that can accompany an eating disorder can be beneficial, but often does not move the person suffering from the ED any closer to recovery. Both Kaelee and Allison had to separate themselves from the thinspo community completely in order to begin their recovery process.
“My body image is still a bit damaged,” said Allison. “I still have days where I tell myself not to eat anything, but I don’t obsess over calories and intake anymore.”
They have experienced one of the darkest Tumblr subcultures and know that it is not a healthy trend to get involved with. Both women expressed regret in regards to their thinspo experience, cautioning anyone who comes across similar content on the Internet to be vigilant in avoiding content that makes them feel anxious or unworthy.
“Constantly comparing myself to photos of other women, whether they were healthy or not, really screwed up my already fragile body image and pushed me over the edge with my eating disorder,” said Kaelee. “My advice would be not to start one.”
Kaelee and Allison have continued to use Tumblr. Allison has returned to “normal” blogging, posting about her interests and interacting with people who share them. Kaelee, who considers herself to still be recovering, primarily uses her blog as a fitness journal and has found a community of other people who are working out and keeping her in a positive mindset.
“Weight-lifting has become one of my favorite activities and I am no longer concerned with trying to shrink myself down into a fragile tiny mold,” Kaelee said. “I am a strong athletic woman and regardless of what society tried to tell me, it is a beautiful thing to be.”
MORE INFORMATION ON EATING DISORDERS
National Eating Disorders Association