Online Perils

04.02.12

Pro-Anorexia, Thinspirational Images on Pinterest: Threat of Self-Harm

The photo-sharing site has been a runaway social-media success—but it’s also filled with ‘thinspirational’ pictures. Isabel Wilkinson reports on Pinterest’s plans to impose a restriction Friday on images that promote self-harm.

Somewhere in the sea of images on Pinterest, the popular social-networking site that allows users to share images, there’s a black-and-white photo of a bony girl in a tank top. Over her chest are block letters that read: “Make them regret the day they dared call you fat.”

It may seem like a disturbing image to be floating around the site—getting pinned and re-pinned—and some users noted that it sent a dangerous message. “Yeah!” one wrote in the comments. “Because compromising your health because of what some douchebag says about you is the best idea ever.”

But others defended the post. “I am overweight and I do look at SOME of these woman [sic] and strive to be like them because I know I need to get my weight under control and with a little help from this quote I will make them regret all the snotty little side comments and the whispers,” one wrote. “It doesn’t matter what people think about me but like I said before the comments make me push harder and harder each day because I know I can prove anyone wrong.”

The photo is part of a growing number of pro-anorexic and “thinspirational” images on sites like Pinterest, Tumblr, and Facebook. In scores of photos, girls frolic on beaches in skimpy bikinis, pull down their underwear to reveal a jutting hipbone, or roll up their T-shirts to take pictures of their flat stomachs in the bathroom mirror. “To Know You’re The Best Looking Girl on The Beach,” reads one thinspirational message. “If It Were Easy, Everyone Would Be Thin.” “The Difference Between Want and Need Is Self Control.” “Sweat Is Fat Crying.” A playful e-card even makes light of the disturbing trend: “Pinterest: Thank you for making me want to work out like a complete psycho and eat desserts all night…simultaneously.”

Adrienne Ressler, a body image specialist at the Renfrew Center, estimates that 100 percent of her patients are aware of pro-anorexia websites. “Some patients have their own peer group which reinforces their quest for thinness,” she says. “And some have become addicted to these sites.”

“Girls are always saying 'Am I the thinnest one in the room?' says Cynthia Bulik, director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program and author of The Woman in the Mirror: How to Stop Confusing What You Look Like With Who You Are. “Now they don’t have to have someone in their real world to compare themselves to. They have it online.”

The popularity of these noxious images has driven Facebook and Tumblr to change their guidelines to try to prevent against images that encourage self-harm—which includes these pro-anorexia images. On Friday, Pinterest will join them, imposing a new change to its guidelines that will prevent users from sharing images that promote self-harm. A spokesperson for the company says it will rely on users within the community to report inappropriate content.

“Girls are always saying 'Am I the thinnest one in the room?' Now they don’t have to have someone in their real world to compare themselves to. They have it online.”

Their efforts may serve to limit imagery that’s outwardly thinspirational—but the reality is that it will never succeed in eradicating these images altogether. When I began researching for this story, I searched on Pinterest for content that was specifically “thinspirational” and “pro-anorexic.” All I needed to do was type in one of those search terms, and thousands of images popped up. Some were explicit, with messages written on them like that bony girl in the T-shirt. But the vast majority were more subtle: photo-montages of “summer,” with thin girls running down sandy beaches; of “fitness,” with impossibly chiseled fitness models demonstrating sit-ups, of “street style,” with disheveled off-duty models alighting from taxis.

There’s a fine line between images that are seen as promoting self-harm—and those that are subtly supporting it. “I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” says Bulik of the new user guidelines. “And the reason it can’t go further is because those lines have not been defined yet, and people might not know what the lines are. The question is how to define that line and define when we cross it. That’s something we need to grapple with—both within the eating disorder community, the media, and social media.” Draw the line too far, of course, and it starts to raise questions about freedom of expression.

Body-image experts are quick to point out that when you take away "thinspo" content, it’s important to replace them with healthier alternatives. One solution is Proud2BeMe, a site promoting health body image supported by NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association. NEDA also has partnered with Tumblr and Facebook—and is in talks with Pinterest—to help regulate their policies against self-harm. The association has helped the sites identify a list of search terms that could be problematic within their communities and is suggesting that they direct people searching for thinspirational pictures to public-service announcements about healthy body image.

“So much content is thinspiration in a much broader sense, and that’s something that NEDA is trying to address too,” says Claire Mysko, project manager for the Proud2BeMe program. “But we need to see more body diversity. It’s really about making sure people are seeing themselves represented in the media.”