OPINION: Social media plays a dangerous role in the development of eating disorders
Trigger alert: Eating disorders, mention of suicide
In the mid-2000s, the American media became obsessed with alarmingly thin girls. This trend reflected the “heroine chic” aesthetic of the 1990s, but with the addition of the internet, the fashion spread like wildfire. Photos of malnourished female bodies were adorned with words such as ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny’ or ‘skip dinner and wake up slimmer’.
These images have gained huge popularity on the Tumblr website, which is a blogging platform that allows users to post updates or text, short clips, and photos. Hashtags such as pro-ana, thinspo and skinny are used to unite users, who then use the site to encourage each other to participate in disordered eating.
As the 2000s progressed, this trend waned in popularity. Just like fashion, the media’s ideal body standard for women goes in and out of fashion, and the 2010s brought the rise of a new unattainable. The new trend was to have curves, taking inspiration from celebrities like the Kardashians.
Maybe it was ignorance, or the comfort of knowing that the last unattainable standard for women at least promoted healthier behaviors than the last, but I believed the days of pro-ana popularity were over. While I assumed there was still a dark part of the internet dedicated to glorifying life-threatening diseases, most major platforms had banned hashtags associated with the trend, and the fad had died out.
Unfortunately, these websites have made a comeback in the mainstream media and in the minds of middle school and high school students. New social media platforms like TikTok and Twitter have become the last safe space for these dangerous communities.
Many on the sites claim their movement is a form of new-age feminism that makes slim women feel confident and sexy in their bodies, but that couldn’t be further from the message they present. These websites and online groups post encouragement for other users that reminds them not to eat, gives advice on how to induce vomiting – also called purging – and how to help alleviate the side effects of self -famine. Other articles include “grassroots” pro-ana propaganda, such as the saying “nothing tastes like skinny feeling,” a quote I’ve seen on many websites.
These websites pose serious threats. Anorexia is currently considered the deadliest mental illness due to its one in five suicide rate and its physical effects. The majority of people who suffer from this fatal disease have inherited it through genetics or behavior learned from their environment.
However, pro-ana websites and online groups are exposing people who otherwise would not have been susceptible to the disease. Young people on the Internet are themselves inducing eating disorders, which then precipitate them into terrifying mental illness. Some of these internet sites and groups have started going so far as to arrange face-to-face meetings to “hold each other accountable” for their weight.
Many platforms, such as Pinterest and Instagram, have banned language associated with pro-ana activity. Activists are striving for the same across all social media platforms. At present, there is little we can do other than report these pages as we come across them.
If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, there are resources to help.
National Eating Disorders Association Helpline: 1-800-931-2237