“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” In internet folklore this quote by Kate Moss, renowned model and one time face of ‘heroin chic’, marked the beginning of the online thinspiration phenomenon: images of extremely thin women posted by social network users coming together to encourage one another to lose weight (Judkis 1). However, this pro-anorexia online movement has been around since the dawn of the internet – the social media platforms of the last decade simply providing an outlet for their expansion. The images found on thinspiration pages, most prominently Tumblr and Instagram, range from those of waif-like celebrities to dangerously emaciated women accompanied by tips for weight loss, or slogans for starvation such as the ones seen below. Through such visual and discursive mechanisms, anorexia is often depicted on thinspiration platforms as a lifestyle that can be attained by adhering to certain codes of representation typically associated with female beauty – perfection reached through strict self-surveillance and extreme gender performance.
Significant differences of opinion exist between supporters and opponents of thinspiration. Opponents assert that it glorifies eating disorders while some “pro-ana” bloggers argue that the purpose of thinspiration is to support a healthy level of weight loss and provide a community to otherwise isolated members of society. Tumblr, perhaps the most popular platform for these sites, was the first to begin taking steps towards regulating this content. The first policy change was banning images that they saw as “actively promoting or glorifying self-injury or self-harm” (“Community Guidelines”). However, online communities this large must rely heavily on users to police others’ behaviour by reporting violations of their terms of service, opening the door to a range of co-surveillance practices that reinforce the social shaming and isolation that provoke body dysmorphia in the first place.
The second step Tumblr introduced was to start showing public service announcements on some searches. When terms including “anorexia”, “anorexic”, “bulimia”, “bulimic”, “thinspiration”, “thinspo”, “proana”, “purge”, “purging”, are entered, Tumblr displays a message urging the user to seek help and providing contact information for recommended support services (Burke 5). As is the case with all forms of online censorship and image regulation, Tumblr’s policies towards images of self-harm run the risk of stifling self-expression – placing it in opposition to ideals of free speech in which any topic, however extreme, may be openly discussed rather than re-directed to a mode of interaction deemed more appropriate.
It is an unavoidable reality that banning or censoring these pages may only intensify the sense of surveillance and social exclusion that anorexia sufferers already experience in public spaces on a daily basis – potentially exacerbating the instinct to self-regulate as a result. In essence, banning pro-anorexia images functions as a pseudo- attempt, regardless of intent, at banning anorexia itself; erasing the digital embodiment of a tangible state of being (Burke 18).
Perhaps the rejection of the anorexic body from virtual public space, which Gil Valentine describes as “privately owned, controlled and managed” (263) is an act of denial on the part of the public space itself – unwilling to face the result of its strict spatial practices and unattainable ideals. What typically starts as an individual’s attempt to fit into the identity projected onto it in public space, can result in another form of unaccepted identity: a “deviant form of slenderness based in extreme conformity to the codes and conventions of society”(Burke 10). This deviant slenderness is often seen as inherently ‘contagious’ and dangerous to young women (hence Tumblr’s attempt to block it), rather than a result of pre-existing threats to female self-perception and esteem rampant throughout all social space: public and private, digital and physical.
‘Thinspirational’ images exemplify “the paradoxical power promised to women through controlling their bodies and conforming to the slender ideal” (Burke 15); the promise that in embodying public projections of gender, femininity, and sexuality they will achieve personal fulfillment. A decrease in vulnerable individuals viewing these images on the internet, potentially exacerbating their self-surveillance or normalizing a behaviour steeped in self-harm, is undoubtedly positive. Indeed, addressing the issue of pro-ana content on the internet is better than ignoring it all together. However, I feel that blocking these images from social media platforms is simply a Band-Aid solution. Tumblr’s policies sacrifice ideals of unregulated free speech in exchange for a surface level explanation of a deeply rooted social pandemic – attempting to block rather than address the digital embodiment of a disease caused by the “cultural constraints placed on young women’s subjectivity” (Burke 18).
Burke, E. (2009). Pro-anorexia and the Internet: A Tangled Web of Representation and (Dis)Embodiment.Counselling, Psychotherapy, and Health, 5(1), The Use of Technology in Mental Health Special Issue, 60-81
“Community Guidelines” Tumblr.com. Yahoo! Retrieved March 31, 2015
Judkis, M. (2012, April 24). Instagram bans ‘Thinspiration,’ pro-eating disorder images. The Washington Post. Retrieved March 31, 2015.
Valentine, Gil. (2005). “(Re)Negotiating the Heterosexual Street: Lesbian Production of Space.” In The Urban Geography Reader. (263-269). London: Routledge