Trigger warning

The emergence of the internet in the 1990s coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of cases of what was diagnosed as anorexia nervosa. Previously a private and isolating disorder, self-starvation entered a new era as the internet provided a platform that enabled sufferers to connect with one another. Offering mutual support and advice created ‘a sense of community that [was]…understanding and non-judgmental.’[1] This support, however, was not in aid of eating disorder recovery. On the contrary, as the internet became popularized, an underground of web-based communities formed whose aim was to promote extreme slenderness; and wherein women looked to each other ‘to validate their behaviours and feelings’.[2]  These communities were comprised of pro-eating disorder websites and forums, the majority of which were created by women, for women.

In recent years, however, the slender ideal has emerged from the secretive world of pro-eating disorders into the mainstream. This is thanks to social media sites such as micro-blogging platform Tumblr. Since it was launched in February 2007, Tumblr has experienced rapid growth, with 420 million users in 2014.[3] For the eating disorders community, Tumblr is used to share motivational photographs and memes. In order to easily compare their weight loss journey with those of fellow bloggers, Tumblr profiles often list the user’s height; along with their starting, current, and goal weights. Women are also encouraged to spread the thinspiration gospel throughout the social media community via ready made images bearing such text as, ‘Reblog if you have ever starved yourself’; and ‘Reblog if you feel fat right now.’

This modern equivalent of the 90s pro-eating disorder movement is known as ‘thinspiration.’ Thinspiration, an abbreviation of thin and inspiration, encourages extreme weight loss, regardless of the psychological or physiological cost. Characteristics of thinspiration as portrayed by social media typically include photographs of emaciated bodies; motivational quotations and poems; and weight loss tips such as ‘wear a rubber band around your wrist and snap it when you want to eat.’ Thinspiration promises its followers that happiness and confidence will be gained from being ‘skinny as hell.’

Promoting bodies that are ‘thin, skinny, dainty [and] fragile’, thinspiration websites are incredibly harmful since they support patterns of abnormal eating such as fasting and purging. Methods that encourage these behaviours include quasi-scientific guides for calculating body mass index, basal metabolic rate and the number of calories burned when performing certain activates. ‘Sitting up straight’ allegedly ‘burns 10% more calories’ and ‘wiggling your legs when sitting’ supposedly ‘speeds up metabolism and can burn up to 10 calories per hour’. While ostensibly harmless, these tips are potentially damaging owing to their presentation as scientific fact. Persuaded that these activities will cause weight loss, vulnerable woman are inspired to engage in damaging behaviours.

The danger of these sites also lies in their endorsement of abnormal patterns of eating as volitional lifestyle choices. Self-starvation and purging are transformed from pathology to person, with advocates of thinspiration referring to these conditions using affectionate pet names such as ‘Ana’ and ‘Mia’.[4] As the gurus of thin, these figures provide comfort for lost, lonely young women who claim that ‘when no one else was there, Ana was.’ As well as being friends and guides, Ana and Mia are also worshipped as the goddesses of thigh-gapped perfection, confirmed by one thinspirational poem:

‘I’ve seen this girl named Ana

She’s pretty thin and tall

She has the smallest frame I’ve ever seen

And not one single flaw.’[5]

Despite not having ‘one single flaw’, Ana is often associated with depression, isolation and self-harm. Thinspiration is frequently manifested in grainy, monochrome images of bone thin girls with captions such as ‘You won’t regret not eating’.

For the disciples of Ana, the fashion for emaciation focusses upon particular aspects of the skeletal body. Over the years, the trend has shifted from the perfectly flat stomach to the ‘thigh gap.’ One motivational image reads: ‘when you want to eat, just think feet together, thighs apart.’ Recently, focus has returned to the midsection, yet a woman’s slenderness is now verified by her ‘bikini bridge.’ This is the look that is depicted in numerous ‘skinny selfies’, when a woman’s bikini bottoms hang suspended between her prominent hip bones. The goal posts of ’thin’ have therefore shifted:  a flat stomach no longer signifies skinny; it must be concave.

Research has found that such competitive skinny selfies posted on social media sites can both trigger eating disorders, and worsen pre-existing conditions. In 2014, there were 35 million selfies posted on Instagram alone.[6] One study investigated the effects of these thinspirational images on young women and found that ‘84 percent of women reduced their calories after just 90 minutes of exposure to thinspo.’[7] Forced to acknowledge that they may be contributing to the rise in eating disorders, many websites are now taking steps to prevent the spread of thinspiration culture. Tumblr, Instagram and Pinterest now display warnings when terms such as ‘thinspo’ and ‘pro ana’ are entered in the search box. These warnings state that ‘eating disorders are not lifestyle choices’, and provide details of related support networks.[8]



[1] [accessed 13/01/15] Ana & Mia: The Online World of Anorexia & Bulimia, Karin Davis

[2] [accessed 13/01/15] Ana & Mia: The Online World of Anorexia & Bulimia, Karin Davis

[3] [accessed 21/03/15]

[4] Pinterest ‘thinspiration’ board [accessed 05/03/15]

[5] Pinterest ‘thinspiration’ board [accessed 05/03/15]

[6] [accessed 21/03/15]

[7] [accessed 10/02/15]

[8] Warning on Pinterest: ‘Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that if left untreated can cause serious health problems or could even be life-threatening. For treatment referrals, information and support, you can always contact the National Centre for Eating Disorders on 0845 838 2040 or visit www.nationaleatingdisorders.org [accessed 10/02/15]

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