Warning: This article contains discussions of eating disorders, self-harm, cutting, and graphic photos, which may be a post-traumatic or other trigger for some readers.
“I want to be so skinny that all my bones show through. That’s my dream in life.”
This might be the most shocking comment I heard during several weeks of interviewing Instagram users with eating disorders, and I heard plenty that were disturbing enough. These words came from the mouth of a 14-year-old girl who I’ll call Chelsea.
“Part of the addiction of it is the whole area of the power that [they] get from all the attention,” says Gregory Jantz, an eating-disorder specialist and founder of The Center. He has written over 20 books, including the seminal Hope, Help & Healing for Eating Disorders. He says people with disorders give “lip service about wanting help” and the addiction makes them feel like, “‘If I choose to get well, I don’t get the same attention.’ It’s their way of getting dysfunctional love.”
If Chelsea’s story frightens you, you should know that she’s one of the most self-aware of the girls I spoke with in terms of both understanding and getting help for her condition. And if you think her story is unique, you probably haven’t searched Instagram much lately.
A quick tag search on statigr.am of common eating disorder words yields some truly eye-opening results. As of January 3, a search for #ana (short for anorexia) yielded 2,660,241 results, #mia (short for bulimia) turned up 2,884,291 results, while slightly more obscure terms like #blithe returns 1,630,208 results.
Over a year ago, Instagram followed sites like Pinterest and Tumblr in “banning” content that supported the pro-ana, pro-bulimia, and “thinspiration” movements that were growing on its site. They added “don’t promote or glorify self-harm” to their updated guidelines.
How’s that working out? If you search for some terms, like #ana or #mia on your iPhone, a pop-up notice appears that speaks briefly of the dangers of eating disorders. Then it lets you click Show Photos and head right on through to peep the thousands upon thousands of images of frail girls with bones that appear to be right on the precipice of poking through their skin. Not to mention the numerous photos of “thinspirational” messages posted as screen captures, bleeding arms and thighs of cutters, and skinny celebrities to whose appearance they aspire, all washed in the faded, blurry glow of Instagram’s 70s style filters.
That’s about as far as Instagram’s “ban” on thinspiration goes. It clearly doesn’t care to censor the 85,993 results you get if you search for #thinspoooo or the 18,004 you’ll find by searching #instathin recently. Try out any of the following tags and you’ll find over at least 1,000 resulting photos for every single one of them (many in the tens of thousands): #thinspooooo #thin #cutting #bulimic #bulimia #eatingdisorder #thynspiration #anamia #purging #skinny #thynspo #anorexia
Banning these communities can be both good and bad, I came to realize after talking to girls involved in them. While finding each other on Instagram (or Tumblr or Facebook or anywhere else in social media) tends to give the users a sense of community and feeling that they’re helping each other, professionals tend to think otherwise.
“One of the problems that’s happening is the addictive nature of thinspiration and anorexia and bulimia,” says Jantz. Those in thrall to those behaviors want to keep engaging in it, while also maintaining a connection to their friends as a secret that binds them together, he explains. The photo sharing also “gives them an opportunity for competition and comparing. That’s part of what adds fuel to this.”
Take, for instance, the case of 21-year-old Amanda (not her real name). She was first diagnosed with anorexia nervosa at 12 and was hospitalized from the disease for the first time at 14. She started an Instagram account last year for herself and to connect with others like her.
She’s found it a wholly positive experience, but one that she explores cautiously. Regardless of caution, Amanda said that Instagram helps alleviate the loneliness of dealing with the debilitating disease.
“You tend to feel really alone in an eating disorder,” she says. “It is the most amazing feeling to go on Instagram and see a picture and caption that is exactly what you were thinking, and to talk to people who actually understand and who won’t judge you, or try to stop you.”
Finding friends and fellow eating disorder sufferers on Instagram has been almost life-saving for users like Amanda. Or at least that’s the way they see it, regardless of what professionals like Dr. Jantz might say. “I have made a very good friend through Instagram who I talk to everyday on Kik,” she said.
Amanda, however, is smart enough to see the downside to her Instagram community as well. “It’s good because you’re not alone,” she said. “It’s bad because Instagram does trigger the disorder, but that’s exactly what we are looking for. If it weren’t on Instagram, we would find it somewhere else. The problem isn’t that these images are there. It’s that people want to see them.”
After years of the thinspiration movement gaining steam on other social networking platforms (perhaps most broadly on Tumblr), users started flocking to the Facebook-owned, insanely popular photo-sharing community Instagram because of its mostly private atmosphere.
Prior to 2013, you couldn’t even officially view a user’s Instagram feed on the Web. You needed to have a smartphone with the Instagram app installed, which lowered the likelihood that snooping parents would find the user’s “secret” account. Even though Instagram has added Web access, the service still lacks an official way to search tags and photos.
A 19-year-old user also emphasized the mobility and simplicity of Instagram. “It’s easy, and on my phone,” she said, “so I always have it with me.”
Jade—our alias for a 16-year-old user who told me that once she dropped to 100 pounds, she set a new goal far lower—mentioned the fact that Instagram helps keep her secret photos safe online, away from prying eyes in her offline life. “I couldn’t keep saving my thinspiration pictures on my phone, because people might see them.”
Instagram’s ability to connect those with eating disorders may have seemed less of a problem when Instagram was a startup. But, sadly, it hasn’t changed since its acquisition by Facebook on April 9, 2012. We asked Facebook and Instagram for their comments on this article. Facebook, which owns Instagram, declined to comment on several occasions. Instagram, contacted separately, failed to respond to queries.
Without direct oversight and policing of these posted images, those with disorders can continue to find solace in the community while also using it to further sink into their own personal despair.
Jantz says, “The thinspiration movement is just a way of giving more fuel to something that’s already been going on. It’s an opportunity, with the technology, to really add to the movement.” And the numbers certainly speak to the movement not decreasing in popularity, but actually growing rapidly. The National Eating Disorders Association provides links to a variety of research over several decades that shows the extent of dieting and other behaviors in children, and the increasing prevalence of eating disorders.
February 23 through March 1 is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Judging by the number of times I saw it mentioned online last year (hint: very few), it might just be time that we recognized this growing problem and, instead of banning, silencing, or shaming those girls and guys dealing with a serious disease, we foster open communication, awareness, and further educate ourselves to what they’re actually going through.
These girls are begging for a community that understands and respects them. Most of them are far from pro-anorexia or pro-bulimia. Thinspiration is a motivation for them, but it’s not a way to wish their disease on anyone.
“Thinspo, in my opinion, is different than pro-ana and pro-mia,” says 18-year-old “Hannah” who has been struggling with anorexia, anxiety, depression, and addiction for over six years, when a girl 10 pounds lighter than her called her fat. “Thinspo, for me, are people and pictures that keep me motivated, or a goal I strive to. I dislike anorexia and bulimia. I wish I hadn’t acquired either of them.”
That wish, however, doesn’t diminish Hannah’s desire to cut out eating altogether if it will get her closer to her goal weight. “I feel amazing when I fast for 2 days,” she says. “I love the feeling of being able to see and feel every rib bone.”
I don’t know what’s become of all the girls I spoke to while writing this article. One 14-year-old girl that I chatted extensively with for several days had to delete her Instagram when some of her real-life friends found out she was running it. Then she stopped using Kik to contact me. My hope is that her parents found out what she’s been going through, got her help, and she’s on the road to recovery. I hope they’re all in recovery.
The names of the girls featured in this article have been changed to protect their identities.
Scott Neumyer is a freelance journalist from central New Jersey who has written for RollingStone.com, GQ.com, Esquire.com, ESPN.com, and many other publications. You can chat with him on Twitter and find more of his work on his Web site.
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- Chelsea is one of the only Instagram users that I interviewed who isn’t keeping her account secret. She told me that she’s “not ashamed of [her eating disorder] anymore” and that she’s “very open with it.” Due to her age, we are keeping her identity private.
- Men also suffer from eating disorders, but there are both far fewer of them and they tend to keep off social media because of an even stronger fear of disapproval.
- Before Instagram recently added direct messaging between users, many users would use a messaging application called Kik to communicate away from Instagram.