When "thinspiration" goes too far: Social media and eating disorders

Instagram and Pinterest now warn users about pro-anorexia posts

Have you ever wondered what it actually looks and feels like to have anorexia? Social media has provided a window into the depths of anorexia, painting a clearer picture than perhaps any of us ever wanted to see. Using Instagram to search for pro-anorexia ("pro ana") hashtags like #ana and #thinspro ("thinspiration"), you will find a gallery of emaciated fashion figures and self-degrading messages, all meant to provide encouragement to lose weight. Unhealthy, life-threatening amounts of weight. They're meant to encourage anorexia.

Instagram now displays a warning when a user attempts to search for pro-anorexia hashtags. The warning advises that eating disorders are not lifestyle choices but serious mental disorders and provides contact information to get help. When I searched for similar keywords on Pinterest, I found that Pinterest has also employed a similar warning system. I'm personally horrified and saddened by these images, so just who are these social media platforms trying to protect?

The Impetus to Join the "Pro Ana" Movement

Lisa, 23, has been recovering from anorexia for eight years. In her opinion, there are two basic types of people using the "pro ana" hash tags: (1) those who have issues other than or in addition to an eating disorder, such as depression, and are looking for compassionate attention, and (2) those who are open about and accepting of their eating disorders. In Lisa's words, this second group "are truly 'pro ana' and think of it as a normal lifestyle. They don't think they should have to hide what they're doing."

Although she didn't stumble upon these social media trends until she was recovering from anorexia, Lisa says she can understand how being part of the "pro ana" community would be appealing for some. She explains that when she was suffering from an eating disorder, it was hard to find anyone who didn't look at her as though something was wrong or try to force her to eat. For people who are anorexic, being around others who see the world as they do is likely a welcome reprieve.

A Need for "Pro Ana" Intervention

However, now that she is in recovery, Lisa steers clear of these "pro ana" images. They can become "triggers" for her to relapse into anorexia, and it's also difficult to determine which images are real and which have been touched up. She had to remove such negative influences in her life in order to begin the road to recovery.

Lisa is speaking from the "other side," while the women in the "pro ana" communities are living in the fog of a serious mental disorder. This support system is one tool that enables them to continue pursuing unhealthy weight loss to the point at which they may literally starve to death. This is surely why sites like Pinterest and Instagram warn users of the dangers of eating disorders when they attempt to search for "pro ana" hashtags. But is that warning enough?

Encouraging Wholeness Rather than Thinness

I've seen other users attempt to encourage the women who post "pro ana" pictures and messages through social media, telling them that they are beautiful and do not need to lose any more weight. When I asked Lisa if she thought this would be effective, she answered poignantly: "If they're focusing on the image or what she looks like, then it's not helpful because it reinforces that idea that people are only focusing on your looks."

She suggests placing the focus on other aspects of the woman, such as academic accomplishments or musical talent. If we could all start encouraging healthy wholeness - not just thinness - perhaps we could begin to take away the pressure that triggers some of these mental illnesses to develop in the first place.

While pursuing this lofty task, we should remember that we are not personally responsible for "saving" these individuals. They suffer from mental illnesses that require comprehensive, professional care. Being open, offering support, and sharing resources is a great place to start. Focusing our own social media pictures and posts on aspects of our lives rather than our physical looks might begin to develop a culture of "wholeness." Meanwhile, we can hope and pray that all people who are either embracing or battling an eating disorder seek and accept the help they need.

Lisa's name has been changed to protect her identity.

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