Anorexia is the deadliest of mental illnesses. (Courtesy of Flickr, CC 2.0.)
Ever heard of thinspiration? Google it—actually, on second thought, don't, unless you want to fall down a rabbit hole into the deeply disturbing world of explicitly pro-anorexia, pro-bulimia blogs and websites.
The pro-ana and pro-mia communities are, well, exactly what they sound like. They promote weight loss and maintenance though anorexic and bulimic behaviors, holding up self-starvation and purging as ways to become and stay beautiful, and to prove one's self-discipline. In other words, they frame disordered behaviors as a lifestyle, and not as the symptoms of mental illness. The purpose of thinspiration communities is to support those who are suffering from eating disorders not in seeking help, but in being "better" anorexics and bulimics. In fact, they discourage seeking help, insisting that starving oneself or purging after eating is a healthy, admirable way to live.
Like I said, you probably don't want to Google it.
This week, a Change.org petition was created urging Twitter to take steps similar to those taken by Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook to make it more difficult for the thinspiration community to use their services. Pinterest, the online image pin-board that is basically a thinspo-seeker's dream come true, has already made it impossible to find boards and pins with the search term "thinspo." If one tries, they'll see the message, "Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that if left untreated can cause serious health problems or could even be life-threatening," as well as the website and telephone number for the National Eating Disorders Association. As Nina Bahadur notes, after Tumblr and Pinterest implemented anti-thinspiration policies, many in the thinspiration community began using Instagram to share "thinspiring" images of skeletally thin women. Instagram, too, has now changed its policies to make this more difficult. Twitter should most certainly do the same.
For Twitter, the case for implementing a similar policy is strong: doing so is a matter of corporate responsibility and public health. Anorexia is the deadliest of mental illnesses, with a fatality rate higher than that of any other psychiatric condition. Surely Twitter doesn't want to facilitate communities that teach how to be "better" at that condition, because this case, being better means being a few pounds closer to death. Then again, whatever Twitter chooses to do, it will not be a panacea: As we've already seen with their migration from Pinterest to Instagram, the thinspiration community, if they can't operate on Twitter, will go elsewhere, or else find ways around the rules that Twitter puts in place. The community, much like the disorders it encourages and the larger culture of idealizing one sole vision of female beauty, is adaptable.
I describe the thinspiration community as "explicitly" pro-eating disorders to distinguish their rhetoric and imagery from those present in other forms of media, whose encouragement of such behaviors are more subtle, but no less real.
The thinspiration community is grotesque exaggeration of the larger culture in which it exists, a culture that glorifies an unhealthily thin body as the peak of feminine beauty and, by extension, feminine success. For white women in America, the pressure to be thin, and to be thin at any cost, is immense. For women of color, it's even more complicated: the ideal of being "thick in the right places" collides with the dominant American ideal that depicts women of color who "look whiter" as more attractive than those who don't (I say "women" here, because most thinspiration community members are women, though the rate of eating disorders and disordered eating in American men is rising steadily). Where the thinspiration community makes it explicit that women should starve themselves, other forms of media simply refuse to feature any images of women who aren't incredibly thin, or photoshopped to physically impossible proportions, while featuring dieting tips and lauding celebrities who lose weight. Mainstream media makes implicit connections between skinniness and sexiness, discipline, fitness, beauty and worth. Thinspiration simply dispenses with the implications. The message is no different; it's just more overt than in the world outside the thinspiration community.
For this reason, it's not enough to simply root out thinspiration hashtags, blogs, chatrooms and Facebook groups while leaving that larger culture untouched. To do so would be like banning Facebook groups that explicitly glorify and encourage rape without asking ourselves why those groups exist in the first place. Nor is it accurate to blame this all on social media, because thinspiration existed long before Twitter and Facebook, albeit by other names. Before Pinterest, women taped pictures from fashion magazines on their fridges to discourage themselves from eating. As is so often the case, social media has facilitated this particular streak in our culture; it didn't create it. Just this morning I snapped this photo on the street, a sign encouraging us to slash our calorie consumption so we can be skinny for summer. This is thinspiration, and it is all around us. Social media has simply given it an accessible, and somewhat anonymous, online home. Most of the images on thinspiration blogs come, just like the ones taped to the fridge, from mainstream fashion magazines. They aren't pulled from some dreadful Unhealthily Thin Women Database. We are exposed to thinspiration all the time, even if we've never Googled the term in our lives.
Twitter should change their policies around #thinspo, no doubt about it. But we mustn't confuse that small and important battle with the greater war. Nor should we point to thinspiration and shake our heads at how messed up some people are, all the while letting ourselves, and the larger culture in which we live, off the hook. To scapegoat thinspiration social media would have the same effect that scapegoating always has: it would make us feel better in the short term, without making us much better in the long.
In a culture that condones sexual violence, "I Touch Myself" is still revolutionary, Chloe Angyal writes in her elegy to Chrissy Amphlett.