Social Media + Eating Disorders = Thinspo, Pro Ana Communities

With the usage of social media and blogging sites on the rise, new interest groups develop and grow everyday. A surge in online communities supporting and encouraging eating disorders has grown as well. On Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter, the hashtags representing these disorders like #pro ana, #ana, #thinspo, #pro mia, #ednos and #self harm are all too prevalent. Thousands of pictures are self-posted and shared with a click of the mouse depicted starving and emaciated women, girls, men and boys who support and glorify these negative behaviors.

Image via featuring #proana #mia #thin for the win

Obtaining the ‘perfect thigh-gap’ 

Somewhere in the development of social media sites, users found solace and comfort in online communities and gravitate toward others with similar interests. For people suffering with self-image issues and depression, these communities have proved to be a successful way to connect, track body “progress” and discuss eating behaviors. A quick look at these tagged words are enough to evoke disgust and horror. The images and words revolving around these communities are obscenely negative and often make suicide references and feature “anon hate” where an anonymous comment author will inspire self-harm or ask the users to “kill themselves” or encourage and often provoke further starvation.

Photo via with tags like #thigh gap #fat and #disgusting

Where is the line?

As a health writer, this concerns me. Social media and blogging sites knowingly allow users to produce and re-distribute content on their sites that is dangerous and too graphic for impressionable users. While I can argue the facts and harsh realities of limited care, non-existent treatment and the lack of positive social support to cure and treat eating disorders and self-harm, the question is posed to the social media sites. Where do they draw the line in allowing these communities to exist?

Instagram recently began featuring a warning label when users try to search for tags like #ana or #pro ana and list a website for eating disorder support. Hellogiggles published an interesting article as a call to action for online users to become a catalyst for positive change surrounding these communities. Feature Shoot published an article on photographer, Laia Abril, and her quest to shed light on the issue and find a link between eating disorders and Internet communities through the exploration of the tag #thinspo. Tumblr has attempted to ban anorexia blogs, but has been unsuccessful in my honest opinion. Users are still allowed to tag and create usernames featuring prominent and recognizable self-harm and eating disorder terms. Twitter still allows prominent tags to be searched as well. This tweet was posted a few hours ago, but was a small light among the dark, negative tweets tagged with #pro ana.

Stopping the viral spread

How can these sites prevent users from posting content focusing on eating disorders and self-harm? Does the issue fall under the First Amendment and is it protected as freedom of speech? What should be done to end the online distribution of self-harm and eating disorder content?

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6 Responses to Social Media + Eating Disorders = Thinspo, Pro Ana Communities

  1. Danielle Chavez says:

    I hate to be that person, but I do think these blogs fall under protected speech per the First Amendment. Additionally, it would be extremely difficult to monitor the traffic of popular blogging sites to exclude anything related to the pro ana community, as you mentioned in your blog.

    The organizations you mentioned that are trying to do something to combat these blogs are doing exactly what they should be doing -–using their First Amendment rights to counter pro ana speech.

  2. Clare Hahne says:

    Social media is seen as such a positive tool to benefit numerous audiences. It also offers a source for people to express themselves. I have read things that Facebook can make people depressed by observing how happy other people appear, but I have never heard of such drastic and upfront ways to cause such harm. Information is key with things like this so that more people can become aware of the harm that is caused.

  3. Montserrat Camacho De Anda says:

    I am so glad you wrote about this rising issue Michelle. For the last couple of days, I have been following this and I just think it is really sad that in today’s world we are having to deal with this kind of thing. I was definitely shocked when I started to see the different pictures tagged with different pro anorexia tags all over the social media universe and to tell you the truth, it was all really intense to see. I think that the issue does fall under the First Amendment and is probably protected as freedom of speech, but everyone should be taking some action to stop this online distribution of self-harm content. For example, I think Instagram is doing a good job by warning before searching for these tags and giving the link to a website that helps those with eating disorders. I think this is something that every social media site should implement. I also think that this is something that the media maybe needs to link into and develop multimedia stories so everyone knows what is happening out there, give parents some information about this issue and ways to help teenage daughters who may be suffering. Raising awareness and getting help from professionals who treat eating disorders are the most important things that can be done.

  4. ssteffan says:

    This is definitely a scary trend, Michelle, but I do think as far as monitoring it is concern, there is very little that can be done on a large scale. It is a protected form of speech since it’s not “hate speech” nor directed toward any one group in particular, as hard as that is to accept. I think the only way to combat negative speech is with more speech — more users on social media sites need to post content encouraging teens and young adults to have a positive body image. Especially if big brands can get behind those trends (brands like Nike, Adidas, Lululemon) by creating Pinterest or Tumblr pages centered around eating healthy, staying fit and keeping track of your body weight in ways that are safe, not scary and dangerous. It’s very sad, but I’m hopeful that with more content circulating the Web that’s positively focused, the attention will be drawn away from these pro-ana blogs.

  5. Hannah Lurie says:

    I was not really aware of the prevalence of “pro ana” in social media until very recently, and it is greatly disturbing to me. This article from BuzzFeed was what brought the issue to my attention, but since then, I have been seeing “thigh gaps” and “thinspo” everywhere.

    While there is an issue of freedom of expression, I think that social media platforms are morally obligated to screen some content from its users. Just as they would not allow hardcore porn to be readily available and visible on their sites, they should not allow photos and stories that are directly promoting personal, bodily harm.

  6. Nora Merza says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post. It is absolutely horrible that the behaviors are glorified because users are able to come together in an online community and support each other’s negative behaviors. It would be a beautiful thing if sites were used to provide help and support to overcome the behaviors rather than encourage them. Eating disorders and self-harm in social media should be be regulated to prevent glamorization and misperception of the issues. Sites are unable to prevent users from posting harmful content because of First Amendment protection but I do believe that sites can follow up the post or hashtag search with tools and resources for the users to find help. For example, if I post a picture supporting bulimia on Instagram, Instagram can follow up with a concerned message for my well-being along with a number to call for anonymous help. I don’t think the tactic will be successful immediately, however I think the action will result in two things. First, users will be aware that the content posted is monitored and they may be reluctant to continue posting similar material. Second, I think that when the user is ready to find help, they will have the exposure to tools and resources to find it.

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