Thinspo and pro-ana: Starving for social media

Photo of extremely skinny woman, usual in thinspo and proana blogs

Websites featuring workout tips and weight loss journeys are all over the place, but some young girls are taking online “thinspiration” too far.

Thinspo and pro-ana sites are an unhealthy trend that perpetuates eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, as acceptable and desirable among teenage girls, across social media platforms.

What do we mean? Take a look:

 

Thousands of girls now turn to “thinspiration” and “thinspo” websites and blogs to share tips on how to restrict calories, lose weight, and sometimes even purge.

What exactly are thinspiration and pro-ana websites?

The web is full of pages displaying tips and photos of thigh gaps, protruding collar bones, restricted calorie meals, and clavicles that catch rainwater. These images of extremely thin women are often referred to as “thinspiration” or “thinspo”.

Many of the images are hard to look at, and the comments below are nauseatingly worse: girls telling other girls that being anorexic and bulimic is normal and even desirable.

 

Pro-ana refers to the promotion of behaviors related to the eating disorder anorexia nervosa. It is often referred to simply as “ana,” and National Institutes of Health (NIH) research has shown that these websites are quite popular among teens.

Why following thinspo content online is so dangerous

Teens spend an average of 53 hours per week consuming various media. Unsurprisingly, this behavior can influence their choices and ultimately affect their health and self-esteem.

A 2011 study conducted by researchers from the University of Haifa in Israel found that the more time teenage girls spend on social-networking sites, the more prone they are to developing negative body image issues and eating disorders.

Sadly, many girls abiding by the Thin Commandments or thePro-Ana Pledgethink that anorexia is a lifestyle choice, rather than a mental disease that could lead to death.

A residential treatment center for eating disorders in Chicago has reported that between 30-50% of its teen patients actively use social media to perpetuate their condition, according to Eating Disorders Review, a newsletter providing clinical information to eating disorder professionals.

Comparing oneself to others is often part of the personality profile of those who suffer from an eating disorder, and the Internet provides 24/7 opportunities to do just that.

In denial that anorexia is a deadly disease

These thinspo and pro-ana blogs are in denial that anorexia nervosa and bulimia are mental illnesses, and instead say these are a “lifestyle choice” which should be respected by doctors and family.

The scientific community recognizes eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia as a serious illness. Research supported by the NIH shows that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychological disorder.

 

Are social media companies addressing the problem?

Facebook and other social media companies are starting to take notice of how their platforms are being used to aid disordered eating and unhealthy lifestyles.

For example, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is now providing counsel to Facebook, helping the site to establish guidelines with respect to the reporting, flagging, and removing of thinspo users and groups.

“We take it really seriously,” Katherine Barna, communications director for Tumblr told Huffpost in an interview. “We’re reaching out to experts and activists in this area to understand the best approaches for us to take, and we’re still in the process of determining what that is… We’re not interested in Tumblr promoting the acceptability of damaging practices.”

How to address eating disorders at home

As a parent, there are strategies to encourage a child’s eating disorder recovery, even if they are not outwardly admitting to a problem.

Check out these tactics to tackle an eating disorder at home, put together by HelpGuide.Org, a trusted source for mental, emotional, and social health.

Be a positive example: You have more influence than you might think. Instead of dieting, eat nutritious, balanced meals. Be mindful about how you talk about your body, eating habits, and weight. Avoid self-critical remarks or negative comments about others’ appearance.

Make mealtimes fun: Try to eat together as a family as often as possible. Meals are also a good opportunity to show your child that food is something to be enjoyed rather than feared.

Encourage eating with natural consequences: For example, if your child won’t eat, then they probably shouldn’t go to an extracurricular in their weakened state- it just wouldn’t be safe. Emphasize that this isn’t a punishment, and could easily be resolved if they fueled their body before the activity.

Be complimentary and supportive: Do whatever you can to promote self-esteem and confidence in your child. A well-rounded sense of self and solid self-esteem can be the best remedy to disordered eating.

Avoid the blame game: Parents often feel they must take on responsibility for the eating disorder. You truly don’t have control over it, so let go of the blame.

Speak up: You may be afraid that you’re mistaken, or that you’ll say the wrong thing, or you might alienate the person. However, it’s important that you don’t let these worries stop you from voicing your concerns.

Resources 

If you know someone who is being affected by an eating disorder, there’s help you can seek out for free.

For treatment referrals, information, and support, you can always contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 or visit www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

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