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The Thinspiration Epidemic

Updated on August 1, 2014

Trigger Warning

The subject matter of this article concerns eating disorders, self harm, and mental health and may be triggering to some.

Urban Dictionary defines "thinspiration".
Urban Dictionary defines "thinspiration". | Source

What is "Thinspiration"?

Thinspiration (often shortened to "thinspo") is a portmanteau of thin and inspiration, and is typically used on the internet to refer to a photo of a thin woman (or man) whose appearance is an inspiration to lose weight. The term can also apply to sayings, quotes, lyrics, etc. with the same message.

Examples of this trend can be found across the internet, especially on social media sites such as Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter. Though sometimes intentionally uploaded to serve as thinspiration, often these images are being used without their owners consent.

The unfortunate reality is that these images do much more (and worse) than motivate. Being bombarded by flawless, thin, glowing beauties can severely damage a person's self esteem, especially that of an impressionable young girl who would be the most likely viewer.

A quick Google search of "thinspiration" reveals worrying suggestions such as "thinspiration pro ana*" and "thinspiration diets". What could start as an innocent search for legitimate motivation can quickly spiral out of control, turning up results promoting dangerous diets and glorifying the bodies of those suffering from a terrible disease.

*pro ana=pro anorexia

May 29, 2014 Google Search Suggestions
May 29, 2014 Google Search Suggestions | Source

The Danger

The immersion into thinspo often begins innocently enough. For me it started when I saw a picture of a beautiful, skinny girl on my tumbler dashboard. I clicked onto the blog that the image originated from and was greeted by literally thousands of similar pictures. I suspect that many people share similar stories.

While visiting one of these pages or seeing a thinspo image will not automatically create an eating disorder, it can plant the seeds for disordered eating and self-esteem issues, which if left untreated could potentially escalate into a more serious illness. Too often images of beautiful girls are accompanied by captions stating how fat they feel or how much they hate themselves. Although these comments are directed inwards, it is easy for someone to read them and think "She is skinnier than me so if she is fat, then what am I?".

The original photo left, and the edited photo right (uploaded by the person pictured).
The original photo left, and the edited photo right (uploaded by the person pictured). | Source

The Trouble With Photoshop

If being bombarded with images of thin, attractive people was not damaging enough, the sad truth is that many of these pictures are in fact not real, or even achievable. A well known trend in the media, editing images has become a wide spread practice among the average internet user. An astonishing number of the "internet famous" people on websites like Tumblr edit their photos. The editing in this case is not something small like adjusting the lighting or removing a blemish, but rather reshaping their entire body, making themselves slimmer and taller and reshaping their eyes, nose, and mouth, making them almost unrecognizable from their real life identity.

Upon viewing these pictures many young, impressionable teens do not know the amount of editing that goes into them. Their desire to look like their internet idol can lead to the development of eating disorders and self harm. What they do not realize is that no one looks like these gods and goddesses, not even the people in the pictures; they are a product of professional photography, makeup, lighting, and photoshop.

What Do You Think?

Do you consider thinspo to be a bad influence?

See results

Inspirational or Destructive?

The gap between "thinspiration" and pro-anorexia is surprisingly slim. While not everyone who posts or views "thinspo" promotes or encourages eating disorders, sadly a large number of them do. Even a photo posted with good intentions can quickly be shared on pro ana websites, with "encouraging" sayings plastered over them.

The truth is that not all, but many, of the people being used as "thinspo" are indeed suffering from some form of eating disorder. When their images are used in this manner, whether with their permission and knowledge or not, the attention, wanted or not, can push them further into their disorder.

Eating Disorder Statistics

  • Up to 24 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder.
  • Eating disorders have a higher rate of mortality than any other mental illness.
  • The body portrayed by the media as "ideal" is achievable by only 5% of the population.

Source: National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders

The Physical Attractiveness Stereotype

The Physical Attractiveness Stereotype is the idea that people who are thought to be attractive (by conventional standards) also possess other positive traits, such as intelligence or kindness. This phenomena often blinds people to the negative traits of those they find attractive - they are able to overlook, perhaps subconsciously, the bad because of the person's appearance.

This belief causes the idolization of less than desirable role models - people who intentionally trigger their (often younger and fragile) fans, thieves, liars, etc., giving them even more power and influence. An unhealthy obsession can quickly emerge in which the idolator will go to great lengths to emulate those they look up to, regardless of their moral status, excessive use of photoshop, or the false persona they present online.

What can be done?

Fortunately websites are taking steps to remove and prevent thinspiration posts. When searching for "thinspo" and related terms on Tumblr the screen below is presented, offering links to several helplines and chats.

Source
Source

Of course Tumblr cannot prevent visitors from viewing these images since the majority of them actually do follow the site guidelines, however placing this PSA is a step in the right direction towards raising awareness of the damaging effects of viewing "thinspo".

Instagram has taken similar action, completely blocking hashtags such as "#thinspo", "#thinspiration", and "proana", and placing a warning message before viewing the "#anorexia" tag. The posts do still exist however, and as with Tumblr there is no real way to prevent them from being viewed, shared, and reposted.

A petition for Google to implement a banner system that would appear when dangerous "thinspiration" search terms were used has reached over 10,000 signatures, however Google has yet to take action. It is a hopeful cause though, as they already apply a banner when the term "suicide" is searched for.

Ideally a similar banner will be created for search terms related to eating disorders and self harm.
Ideally a similar banner will be created for search terms related to eating disorders and self harm. | Source
Trigger warnings on Tumblr.
Trigger warnings on Tumblr. | Source

Trigger Warnings

A trigger warning is used to alert the viewer that the content contains material that could potentially cause a flashback, invoke the desire or urge to self harm, and other strong and/or damaging emotions or responses. Internet users are encouraged to add trigger warnings to any content that could be damaging. These tags can then be avoided by apps and extensions like Tumblr Savior which allows you to black-list certain tags and users. Unfortunately it is inevitable that some people will refuse to add tags, posts will be overlooked, etc. but ideally with increased usage trigger warnings will become more common and triggering content easier avoided.

A "Healthy" Alternative?

A growing counterpart to "thinspiration" is "fitspiration", or "fitspo", which advocates and promotes fitness and health. Often "fitspo" groups are perfectly healthy, however they can also be used as a cover for pro-ana and "thinspiration" sites to justify their actions as being positive.

A form of disordered eating called Orthorexia Nervosa, defined as an "unhealthy obsession" with healthy eating, can emerge as a result of exposure to "fitspo". As with anorexia, bulimia, and eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS), orthorexia often begins as an innocent attempt to lose weight and become healthy, but turns into a fixation on control and numbers. Sufferers of other EDs who are trying to recover are at risk of orthorexia because it allows them to be "healthy" while still remaining in control.

Again, the lines between motivation and "thinspiration" and healthy weight loss and an obsessive disorder are fine; please use caution and realize that "fitspo", in many ways, can be just as damaging as "thinspo".

Will "Thinspo" Ever Really Go Away?

"Thinspiration" will always exist. While it may not be possible to completely eradicate it's presence, you can educate yourself and others about the dangers and how to avoid them. By being aware of the risks and consequences of delving into the world of "thinspo" and pro-anorexia websites, a life threatening disorder may be avoidable. If you or a loved one are affected by an eating disorder and self harm, please visit the links below.

Seek Help

If you or someone close to you is suffering from an eating disorder please consider contacting on of the following support groups:

In the United States:

National Eating Disorders Association: 1-800-931-2237

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

In the UK:

Beat (Beating Eating Disorders): 0845 634 1414 (Adults) and 0845 634 7650 (Youthline)

Please follow this link for additional helplines around the world.

Recommended Viewing

© 2014 Victoria Anne

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