Thinspiration, fitspiration and finding fault

By Rosemary | October 10 2012 | 27 Comments

In March of this year, Pinterest – y’know, that online cork board that stay-at-home moms in America use to document their must-have wallpapers – updated its acceptable use policy, moving to prohibit pins that actively encourage self-abuse and self-harm, including (but not limited to) eating disorders such as anorexia and (its lesser-known sister and butt of many overfeeding jokes) bulimia.

It was following the lead of Tumblr, a blogging platform largely used for displaying photographs, which, in March 2011, released a statement implementing a new “policy against pro self-harm blogs”. Tumblr suggested that, when a user searched for tags like “thinspiration”, “thinspo” and “proana” (pro-anorexia), a public service announcement would pop up that read: “Eating disorders can cause serious health problems, and at their most severe can be life-threatening. Please contact the [resource organization] at [helpline number] or [website].” *

It brings up so many big questions – should sites such as Tumblr, Pinterest and WordPress seek to prohibit people’s expression, interests and inspirations, even if they disagree with said items? Can censoring imagery really help curb eating disorders?

I think about this a lot; eating disorders are, say psychologists, mostly to do with control – which is a handy line trotted out by the fashion media whenever they’re accused of glorifying ultra-slim female bodies. But can it be true that what we consume visually has nothing to do with how we feel about our own bodies?

Then we come to fitspiration; there are hundreds of boards on Pinterest, even a Facebook page dedicated to this fitness inspiration – imagery and mantras that encourage you to get off the couch and do some exercise! But a large number of these images aren’t of sweaty, muscular women; they are of lean women with protruding bones who wouldn’t look out of place on a thinspiration or proana board (or, yes, on the pages of Vogue). Here’s Karlie Kloss, for example, in Numero magazine, which photoshopped out her ribs in an editorial in the magazine’s October issue.

I’d love to know what readers think about it all – I know that it doesn’t take a thinspiration or fitspiration board for me to feel bad about my body. It takes a fashion magazine, maybe a movie with a very slim (and very beautiful) heroine, or, y’know, most of what gets published on Can thinspiration be blamed for bad body image, or does it go way deeper than that?

* In Ireland, incidentally, you can talk to the lovely folks over at the Eating Disorder Resource Centre of Ireland, you can call Bodywhys at 1890 200 444 and you can, and should, talk to your GP. (And if you don’t feel comfortable talking to him / her, get a new GP.)

Life, Diet & Wellbeing ,

27 Replies to "Thinspiration, fitspiration and finding fault"

  • Dawn says:

    My issue with fitspo and thinspo is that they are just another symptom of the messed up attitude women have towards their bodies. I think fitspo isn’t just about being fit, it’s about being fit within the correct parameters of being slim, toned and sexy looking. This just goes back to the whole idea of exercise being for diet reasons rather than for being healthy.

    With regards to the effect advertising, magazines and so on have on women’s self-confidence, there is a link there and every woman has probably felt bad about their body at some stage because of something in the media.

    However with regard to eating disorders, I would agree that it is a need for control directed at the person’s own body, but I guess the focus on their body is probably influenced by the messages they receive about their bodies from their childhood/ teenage years.

  • niamhy_dee says:

    This is something I think about a lot as I started exercising properly about 18 months ago in a bid to get fit. For me, losing weight is just a bonus – I love feeling fit and capable. I started playing roller derby in January and the main reason I love it is that ANYONE can play it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a size 8 or 18, six feet tall or five foot nothing – there is a place for everyone. It is all about being your strongest self and recognising – and being surprised by – what your body can do for you. There is no competition or pressure to be thin or particularly athletic, just a desire to be fit and strong. We don’t look at each other and think, I wish I was a size X like her. We look at each other and go, Holy crap, look at your arm muscles! I wanna do that! In a society where women are constantly fed images of starving women – sidenote, when designer women’s clothes only fit skinny men we have a MAJOR problem – any arena where women and their bodies are celebrated is a very, very good thing indeed.

  • Fairy Godmother says:

    This is a toughie. I’m a huge fan of Tumblr and Fitblrs. Have come across pro-ana blogs but immediately unfollow them. But yes I find alot of the girls that are on it are teenagers but generally have other problems than just their weight. I want to say though, the people who made me feel self-conscious about my size weren’t magazines first. When I was say 12ish, the older girls on my road, three years my senior started it. “oh I wish my legs were as skinny as yours…” in general they were about a foot taller than I was. And then my mam didn’t help either. Always telling me to suck in my stomach that I’d thank her for it when I’m older. And lycra is the reason women are out of shape because they don’t learn to suck in their stomachs because lycra does all that for them. It really is no wonder I have weight issues! I’m in the obese catagory and have been for a few years now. I don’t want to be be and a few times have lost it all only to put it back on plus more. It’s magazines now I’m older But I think the weight/size issue started at home. For me anyway

  • Gracie says:

    I am not a stay-at-home mom (quite opposite of it really) and I use Pinterest actively :D

    I am really disturbed by the amount of “thinspiration” pins and boards over there. At first they were mostly motivational quotes to get you off the couch, which is alright. It was more about having a healthy life style. Then, it evolved to full on proana with boards filled with photos such as Karlie Kloss’. (I don’t have or follow any such board, but it is all over the popular pins, etc. You can’t avoid it.) I don’t understood why the proana internet movement is suddenly OK because of Pinterest, Tumblr, etc. I am opposed to censorship but they must be a way.

    Here’s a quote from a pin that left me a bit horrified: “Do you want hip bones or pizza? …a gap between your thighs or cake? …collarbones or sweets? …a flat stomach or soda?” They don’t sound horrifying by themselves. Imagine these words over the images of thin girls. :/

  • LauraLou says:

    its horrible, all scattered over the internet. but its never giong to stop. They’ll pop them up on facebook, it seems fb dont really have guidelines as such.

    I think the fitness ones are great, with a girl who is so ripped and toned. But this, nah its horrible.

  • I don’t think banning or censoring these websites will end eating disorders, but I think it might help or even possibly make the women or men accessing them think for a moment.

    I think perhaps some young people access these sites out of curiosity? They hear about it at school, they’re not really sure what it’s about so they Google it and perhaps if a message like the one you posted above pops up it might give them pause for thought? They might not have looked at it as self harm, they may not even be anorexic themselves, they might have simply thought ‘pro ana’ was a way to look your best, or lose a few pounds, not as something potentially terribly dangerous.

    I guess – would we allow the Irish Times to print a weekly pro-ana column and say ‘If you don’t like it, don’t read it’ or that it was simply the writer expressing themselves and their interests and insipriations? I doubt we’d allow that, so why allow it on the internet?

    In general though I think body issues is such a huge complex issue. Not just about weight but about appearance and beauty and self worth. There are women and men out there, for example, who spend hours looking at pictures of different noses, wishing theirs was bigger/smaller/longer/thinner. Having complicated surgeries, spending vast amounts of money to ‘fix’ a perceived imperfection. That all comes under body issues as well, I think.

  • fififinx says:

    Do you help an alcoholic by feeding them gin? Thinspo is feeding an addiction which kills, just like alcohol. Not only should it be banned, it should be the subject of penalties. Preying on the insecurities of young (generally) women (generally) to inflate your own ego (which is what the ‘thinspo’ crowd are doing)is predatory, dangerous and just wrong wrong wrong!
    And, no, I’m not fat – I just happen to have lost a few people to this terrible disease, one of whom was encouraged to her death by a shower of bitches who didn’t know her, didn’t care about her and didn’t have to face the consequences of their actions!

  • thefrog says:

    @fififinx, the fact that felt you had to point out “I’m not fat” is very revealing of the general attitude on some sites too.
    I’ve probably spent too long reading comments on CiF, but the number of people saying “fat people are unhealthy, they’re lazy, all they have to do is get out of the couch and eat less” is scary.

    I think that one of the perverse effects of the healthy living messages public authorities have been broadcasting is that anybody now feel free to comment on what other people look like (too ‘fat’ or too ‘thin’, it goes both way), under the pretence of “helping them”.

  • ShuGal says:

    I don’t think thinspiration will cause an eating disorder but it will help to feed (sorry, NPI) it. I have to say, I rarely see things I would view as pro-ana on pinterest, I have seen the odd thing (Kate Moss quote springs to mind), but overall they seem to be more about working out & being fit & healthy which I think is a good thing.

  • fififinx says:

    @ the frog – yeah, it is. The first thing the proana girls come out with if you attempt to point out what a dangerous thing they are doing is come back with “You’re just jealous, you must be FAT”. I thought in the interests of intelligent dialogue, I’d just hit it on the head first thing.
    Regarding the healthy living message, I do think it has encouraged a bit of well meaning but ill considered commentary, but long before that people both fat and thin have had to cope with nastiness. I spent the whole of university having to tell people I was not anorexic; and my best friend (who was put on a diet at FOUR MONTHS OLD) had to explain that no, she wasn’t eating everything in sight. The both of us together (we were a bit joined at the hip-y, I must admit) made the perfect target.

  • Caitríona says:

    I quite like fitspo photos and pages. Some of the girls are super impressivley toned and fit, but necessarily skinny. In fact, there would be np protruding bones in any of the pics I look at! These girls are generally professional athletes so I know I’ll never look exactly like that, which is fine by me because I like being fit but I think girls are supposed to have a bit of fat on them. I’m a size 8 but LOVE my boobs and my bum. I didn’t have any and I used to be stick thin at 5’10”. Girls used to be so jealous of me but I hated it and boys used to tease me and call me names and NEVER liked me. I really can’t fathom why any girl would aim to look like that.

    That Karlie Kloss photo confuses me. The outrage over it is weird…the magazine got rid of her ribcage and made her look less skinny and more normal. Surely that’s good right? She looks properly starved in the original photo, it is not attractive and I can see why they got rid of it.

  • witchgirl26 says:

    @fififinx – that must have been terrible for both of you.
    Some people in school with me suspected me of being anorexic/bulimic because of some stomach problems I had when I was younger – meant I went from eating hardly anything coz I was sick to eating loads coz appetite returned. It’s a hard belief to shake from people & a stigma that stays for a while. Did not help that I’m naturally small.

    I’ve just started using Pinterest & haven’t seen much like that on it but then wasn’t looking for anything that could lead to it. I do think the image above is scary though. I would never want to be able to see my ribs like that!

    I don’t think that sites like this cause the problem in the first place but agree that they can help make people think about what they are doing by putting up a message like in the article.

  • Aisling says:

    If people want to find the offending photographs on the internet they will find them I think. Will banning them from a single website change anything? It is doubtful. Will banning pictures of people who look too this or too that ever stop people going to extremes to gain control or lose weight etc? More doubtful still I think!

    I feel the view that the fashion industry, magazines, pintrest or skinny models are to blame for eating disorders is at best rather simplistic a view and at worst ignorant and misinformed. Eating disorders are not always about weight or body image either. While I am by no means an expert, often it has a lot to do with a person’s mind set and feelings towards themselves. Surely such a complex affliction will never be remedied with the removal of photographs from pintrest?!?

  • thefrog says:

    Aisling, it’s true that eating disorders are not about fashion/pictures but often about personal issues. And it is simplistic to blame fashion or whatever is the new scapegoat. I’m no doctor, but don’t they fall under the psychological illness category like depression?
    However I think that the problem with these pictures and sites (and the broader fashion and advertising worlds) is that they sort of say “don’t worry, it’s not an illness, it’s ok and you should go on doing it”.
    Now if you know someone suffering from a mental illness, you tell them to ask for help, you don’t tell them “look it’s alright, you should continue being miserable and putting your life in danger”.
    So no, the whole issue won’t go away because you remove a few pictures from a well-known site, but it is still a statement saying “we won’t glorify what is, in the end, self-harm”.

  • Aisling says:

    Can I just say, coming from a fitspo tumblr your post is very misleading and incorrect. Yes there is a small number of PRO Ana/Mia blogs but there’s a larger majority of Eating Disorder blogs of sufferers trying to support each other and aid each other through recovery. Yet again all ED blogs put together are outnumbered by the fitspo blogs.

    These are (mainly women) who aspire to get to their goal weight but also be strong and not skinny! The slogan is ‘Strong is the new Skinny’ and Karlie Kloss is the complete opposite to what the bloggers are working their asses off to be. It’s a community of people fighting the daily struggle of getting off the couch and exercising (including the promotion of weight training which the ‘skinny’ people would turn their noses up to) or choosing the apple over the chocolate and it’s very beneficial.

    Check it out yourself, these women aspire to be lean and strong while being at a healthy weight

  • Rosemary says:

    Hi Aisling, I take your point but I did say “a large number of these images aren’t of sweaty, muscular women; they are of lean women with protruding bones who wouldn’t look out of place on a thinspiration or proana board”. I wasn’t talking about a majority, just a large number – and while I think that finding inspiration to feel your best is great, I feel like providing women with inspiration in a visual sense is just another way of saying “here’s how you should look”. It’s a much broader point about ownership of the female body, and the emphasis society puts on it … but it’s a point nonetheless.

    Gracie, I’m a Pinterest addict! The SAHM thing was a bit tongue in cheek :-p

    Karen, on the Irish Times point, that’s not censorship, it’s editorial control. All newspapers and magazines have a party line, so to speak, and would adhere to quite a strong code of ethics when it comes to behaviour, specifically anything linked to and triggering psychological disorders. I know that they’re very careful about printing fashion photographs that they deem to be of women who send out the wrong message, IYKWIM.

    Caitriona, re Karlie Kloss – I think the problem with the photoshop is that the first picture IS Karlie’s body. If you don’t like it, use a different model. I have as much of a problem with a thin woman being photoshopped bigger or more “normal” as I do with an overweight woman being photoshopped thin or more “acceptable”. Why can’t we all just be unphotoshopped and accepted as we are?

    fififinx, I admire your idealism but since when did we live in a world that banned all addictive substances? Alcohol isn’t banned, for example; nor are cigarettes. I don’t agree with censorship at all, actually, so I wouldn’t, for example, suggest that the whole world ban thinspo pics – but I do think that it’s admirable that Pinterest and Tumblr, given their age and gender demographics, would choose to do so.

    In short, this is a huge topic! And one post was never going to get through it all. I think points we can all agree on are: eating disorders are bad (in South Park voice), and sad, and such a pity, and anything that encourages women to feel bad about their own bodies and to take steps to be unhealthy is also bad; being fit is wonderful, and feeling happy and healthy about having a strong body even moreso; Pinterest is not just for SAHMs; and the weight, well, it is a heavy load (NPI).

  • Emma says:

    I wish I wasn’t eating cake while reading this!

  • PinkPanther says:

    I misunderstood this when I first read it and thought they’d photoshopped the first image. She looks like a famine victim. I’m pretty sick of the whole obsession women have with their weight. And I think posts like this contributes to it. And me commenting on it contributes. And so our ridiculous obsession continues.

  • littlesis says:

    Great post, Rosemary. This whole area is really interesting, especially as a Pinterest user.
    While I don’t necessarily think that banning images like these would rid the world of eating disorders etc, I don’t think these help.

    I’d also prefer not to see them while I’m busy pinning my favourite cakes on a board!

  • Jackie says:

    As someone who has ‘recovered’ from a eating disorder (in as much as we ever do), I can honestly say images of thin people had no effect on me. Furthermore, what I look like has no bearing on my eating patterns: I’m just not that visual. The starving, bingeing, purging and over-exercising was all about the numbers, and control. Using my will to make myself shrink was a cry for help, initially, and then simply a habit, not a desire to look a certain way.

    Models and thin people were never aspirational figures for me: I wanted to be a writer.

    I started wearing make-up in my 30s, as a way of grounding myself in my body, of forcing myself to see my body as myself, not just as a carrier for me. It kind of works!

    My point in writing this is to say that not all eating disorders and the people behind the labels are the same. Women’s bodies should not be censored in case the mentally ill have a problem with them. It’s also a culture-centric thing to do. As women, we shouldn’t give away our right to be so that unelected groups of people (or even elected, come to think of it!) can decide whether we are acceptable. It’s as bad to airbrush a woman’s ribs as it is to airbrush her fat. Don’t let internet Goldilockses arbitrate what’s ‘acceptable’ — let’s just make more of an effort to bring our daughters up with self-esteem to get through the early part of their lives in one piece!

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