Emily*, then 18, headed home after her dance class, depressed and dejected. She had spent the duration of the afternoon staring at herself in the mirror, scrutinizing the size of her thighs, analyzing the width of her hips. So she did what she did every night — took her dinner into her room, flushed it down the toilet and logged on to her computer. There, she found solace scrolling through the hundreds of “thinspiration” sites. Bloggers had posted countless images of emaciated women flanked by captions such as “Dear Self: Please go to bed feeling empty.”
These thinspiration sites, abbreviated “thinspo” and formerly referred to as pro-ana (anorexia) or pro-mia (bulimia), have popped up all over Tumblr, the image-laden micro-blogging platform and social-networking website. And they are catnip for thousands of young women who suffer from anorexia and bulimia, not only glorifying disordered eating but providing a community that establishes a sense of belonging and validation.
Technology and Eating Disorders
Thinspiration sites have been around for at least a decade, but they seem to have increased in the wake of Tumblr’s popularity. Models such as Karlie Kloss, Miranda Kerr and Kate Moss serve as unofficial thinspo poster girls, their hipbones and collarbones featured prominently. In many images, you don’t even see their faces. Sites have an elegant, minimalist feel, reflective of today’s tech-savvy young women who use them.
In addition to the barrage of images, sites will often feature the blogger’s starting weight (SW), current weight, (CW) and goal weight (GW), as well as height. It’s not surprising to find many goal weights consisting of only two digits. Many diarists will include food eaten and calories consumed (coffee, a cup of bran cereal, and half a banana, for a total consumption of 150 calories for the day), as well as exercise logged (5-mile walk, burning 300 calories). Because of the intimate feel of these blogs, it’s also common for bloggers to share confessions about laxative use and purging after a binge.
There’s often also an extremely negative vibe that permeates these sites. Bloggers will post pics of an offensive body part (“look at my fat thigh”), or will berate themselves for eating too much. It’s almost a public self-flagellation, as if putting the information out there will atone for their “sins.” However, many sites allow commentary only in the form of a private message.
Dr. Amy Combs, a licensed psychologist practicing at the Charlotte Center for Balanced Living, specializes in eating disorders. She feels that the combination of social media and graphic images is what is especially dangerous about these blogs.
“These sites become a black hole for those who are compulsive about losing weight,” she says. “For those kids who are drawn to them, the images become part of their psyche. They learn to consider that attractive, and they become consumed by it.”
A Community of Dysfunction
Teenage girls and young women with eating disorders often isolate themselves socially, withdrawing from friends and family. However, the thinspo sites offer them a place to feel accepted, reinforcing unhealthy behaviors.
“Not only do they de-stigmatize eating disorders, they provide a road map as to how to develop (one),” says Combs. “With this online environment, a negative peer culture has developed, making intervention by parents and health-care providers even more difficult. It allows them to be socially obsessessional about their weight.”
The social aspect of this dysfunctional community is often what spurs on the disordered eating. Many girls spend so much time reading others’ blogs, they feel like friends. Bloggers’ negative rhetoric, disguised as self-control (“this blog is for those who will stop at nothing short of perfection,” reads one), gives girls a sense of competition within the blogosphere.
“Let’s not forget the degree to which individuals with eating disorders compete with themselves and others about calorie restriction and exercise,” says Combs. “With these sites and reposting of the most graphic images, everyone is comparing themselves to the most extreme rather than the thinnest person in their class at school.”
Emily — who is now in recovery — admits that she became sucked into the thinspo world. “I would read about how people stayed thin and how to fill yourself up without adding calories,” she says. “I remember how one girl would eat paper or cotton from sweatshirts.”
Because Emily didn’t go to those extremes, she felt her behavior was normal. “I read others’ stories and knew I wasn’t as bad. And having the websites definitely made me feel better that I wasn’t crazy for being obsessive with counting calories and weighing myself multiple times a day. I wasn’t thinking that this can really ruin my body or this isn’t normal behavior.”
So what do Thinspo blogs mean for parents? With tech-sophisticated girls developing eating disorders at a younger and younger age, it should most definitely be a concern. Many parents are unaware the sites even exist, let alone the threat they pose. In addition, most sites contain sexual content.
First, Combs says, be aware of your daughter’s personality traits. Often, girls with “perfectionistic” attributes coupled with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive tendencies have a danger of developing an eating disorder. “You don’t want to demonize weight,” she says. That means not painting weight in a negative light, such as making fun of obese people. In addition, “focus on health and behavior, and don’t micromanage eating.”
Be aware of the warning signs, says Combs. Elimination of foods they’ve liked in the past, body checking (a child holding onto specific body parts as if pinching or measuring them), extremely slow eating, cutting food into tiny pieces, avoidance of social activities involving food, and a sudden interest in cooking and managing the healthiness of family meals are all indicators that your daughter may have disordered eating issues.
*Not her real name
Amy Salvatore Reiss is a freelance writer who lives in Davidson. She is the mother of two girls.