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Internet ‘thinspiration’: online searching for pro-eating disorder websites

02.12.2021 - Articles, Eating disorders

Pressure to live up to societal standards has contributed to a growing number of online communities dedicated to promoting ‘thinspiration’. Thinspiration, or ‘thinspo’ websites, feature photos, blog posts, diet and exercise instructions, and inspirational messages devoted to the pursuit of thinness and weight loss.

In the last ten years, dozens of published articles describe people accessing these articles as a means to lose weight, sometimes with dangerous consequences

According to figures from NHS England, over the last two years, there has been an increase of almost one third (37%) of people being admitted to hospital for eating disorders.

Pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia (also known as “pro-ana” or “pro-mia”) websites are widely seen as part of the problem.

What is thinspiration? 

The term thinspiration, or thinspo for short, derives from the words ‘thin’ and ‘inspiration’.

Commonly seen in the context of anorexia nervosa, thinspiration is used to refer to something or someone that serves as motivation for a person seeking to maintain very low body weight.

Websites that promote thinspiration often promote unhealthy ideals and activities, hence their controversial standing. It’s not just teens who are affected; younger girls and boys are becoming more body-conscious due to these websites, too.

What is pro-ana and pro-mia? 

Pro-ana is a term that promotes positivity towards anorexia. People who share the pro-ana mindset believe that eating disorders are a legitimate lifestyle choice.

Pro-bulimia (pro-mia) proponents seek to promote acceptance of bulimia, and they often offer encouragement to bulimics. Pro-mia followers deny the horrifying physical consequences of the disease and its ability to kill if left untreated.

Both groups of people assume that having a thin physique correlates with perfection, love, and happiness. They often believe that they have control over their behaviour, don’t see their decisions as life-threatening and may praise themselves for having restraint.

Pro-ana and pro-mia content varies based on its audience. It often consists of harmful diet tips, the use of laxatives, compulsive and extreme forms of exercise, and even exhibiting hatred towards one’s body. Followers will call this content ‘thinspiration’, which features creative expression (poetry, essays, photos) to encourage drastic weight loss.

This kind of content may promote other unhealthy choices, such as hiding the disorder from those close to them or lying to their treatment team about their progress. Pro-ana is also intertwined with issues relating to self-harm; some people who believe in pro-ana glamorise other forms of emotional distress.

What are the symptoms of an eating disorder?

Some of the symptoms of a person suffering from an eating disorder are listed below:

  • Extreme and worsening preoccupation with body size, shape, and weight loss 
  • Obsession with food and fad diets 
  • Skipping meals or eating overly small or large portions 
  • Adopting specific food rituals that are not medically necessary 
  • Ongoing concern with counting calories, macronutrients, or other metrics 
  • Noticeable fluctuations in size or weight 
  • Missing a period or only being able to menstruate on oral contraceptives 
  • Experiencing gastrointestinal distress or other stomach problems 
  • Low levels of iron, blood pressure, blood sugar, and other vital metrics 
  • Sleep problems 
  • Dental issues with cavities, tooth pains, or enamel erosion 
  • Fine hair on the body 
  • Evidence of vomiting, laxative abuse, diet pills 
  • An ongoing obsession with “clean eating”.
  • Exercising compulsively and beyond normal limits

Why are people influenced by thinspiration?

The movement’s origins likely come from our human nature to form social groups. In society, it is customary to want to feel accepted and part of a group of people. This yearning may result in social cliques, such as in school, clubs, interest groups, or support groups. 

While many of these groups positively impact members, both of these movements mostly skew reality, so members feel better about not seeking recovery from bulimia.

Thinspiration content is often marketed as helpful for individuals to feel more connected to their bodies. In reality, the messages are “consistent with the attitudes and beliefs that characterise eating disordered psychopathology.”

The movement has grown in popularity, and much of it can be attributed to unrealistic images of men and women found in the media. Images related to thinspiration suggest that being thin is beautiful and desirable, and being overweight is not. The media legitimise this ideology, and pro-mia advocates interpret this as bulimia being a standard lifestyle choice.

One study did find that exposure to ‘thinspiration’ and ‘fitspiration’ was associated with individuals comparing their physical appearance to idealistic online images. Furthermore, the study pointed to an increase in eating disorder symptoms in those that followed these movements.

What do the numbers and experts say?

According to the NHS, the number of young people admitted to hospitals with eating disorders has doubled in the last three years. 

Young people, in particular, are most at risk, with media reports noting that the rise could be due to a range of factors. Among the leading suspects are pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites.

There were 21,794 admissions for eating disorders among all age groups in 2019-20, up by 32% from 16,547 in 2017-18. Teenagers aged 13-18 accounted for 4,348 of the admissions in 2019-20. 

Psychiatrists call the rise in admissions ‘worrying’ and are urging governments to promote early intervention to ensure people find the support they need before it’s too late.

Emma Thomas – the CEO of the charity YoungMinds, has argued that despite community care in recent years for young people with eating disorders improving, it is difficult for them to get the help they need before they reach “crisis point”.

Agnes Ayton, chairwoman of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP), believes that the increase in admissions is a worrying sign that the problem is not appropriately treated in its early stages.

Rising hospital admissions for eating disorders are very worrying as they are the deadliest mental health disorders. Patients often face long delays in accessing specialist treatment. The government must ensure eating disorder services are properly staffed to help bring waiting times down and reduce the need for hospitalisation.”

Why are more young people being admitted to hospital?

Spokesperson Tom Quinn from the eating disorders charity Beat says:

While this rise in the number of young people admitted to hospital for treatment could mean that the number of young people with eating disorders is increasing, it could also be due to improvement in the ability of healthcare professionals to identify eating disorders.”

Claire Murdoch, national mental health director for the NHS, has actually praised their progress. It’s on record that waiting times for NHS eating disorder services are much improved and that 100 new or improved services have been rolled out and backed by millions in extra funding.

Prominent mental health experts have warned that eating disorders are thriving in isolation summoned by COVID-19. Many people have lost access to community services and local support networks as a result of the pandemic.

Unrestricted access to thinspiration websites without the offset of reliable medical information is dangerous. Their availability could also be a reason why eating disorder numbers are on the rise. A study by Stanford Medical School indicated

  • 96.0% of people learned new purging methods or weight loss while visiting thinspiration sites 
  • 46.4% of people who accessed pro-recovery sites learned new techniques 

What’s being done to crack down on these websites?

The government in the United Kingdom has expressed concern regarding the websites, however no official legislation has been passed to control them. 

France decided to clamp down on pro-ana and pro-mia sites in 2015. People who run or actively promote extreme thinness could now face a prison sentence and a fine of up to €10,000 (£7,333). It has been argued how effective a solution this is, given that some of the creators of these sites may be suffering from a mental health condition themselves. It does at least prove that France views it as a severe problem.

Italy also proposed a bill in 2014 that would fine and even jail people who create pro-eating disorder websites. 

In the US, an internet search for ‘thinspiration’ on sites like Tumblr, Pinterest, or Instagram will result in a warning box popping up, directing you to The National Eating Disorders Association. Users on these sites are now banned from tagging photos with specific eating-disorder keywords, but they have proven to be easily navigable. Instead of tagging a photo with #thinspo, they’ll use #th1nspo, which catches on quickly. 

What can parents do?

Reporting pro-thinspiration websites to authorities often results in nothing. Disclaimers on the site effectively provide a loophole to prevent them from being shut down. What you can do is just to be aware of these kinds of sites. 

  • Stay alert for signs of unhealthy eating. Fixating on appearance, dieting, and overeating all can be signs of a problem. 
  • Filters from internet providers or browsers can block many of these sites. If some are slipping through the cracks, it is possible to block certain websites. 
  • Talk to your child about the health consequences of eating disorders. Your kids may know of someone who is suffering. Point out that these are illnesses, not defects, and that their friends need help.
  • Don’t bug your child about their weight – it’s best to emphasise health and fitness instead. Consider setting an example and being more active. Get your child up and moving by taking a walk, doing a sport, or taking a class at the gym together.

Treatment at The Kusnacht Practice

Our priority is to identify and treat the underlying causes of eating disorders. You can do a self-test here

To reach this goal, we look beyond the mere symptoms to treat the whole person: mind, body and soul. 

Eating disorders are likely to have taken a significant toll on the body. Here, we use comprehensive laboratory testing to identify any physical, biochemical or neurochemical imbalances. 

Everything we do at The Kusnacht Practice is highly tailored to your unique treatment plan and personal needs. The individualised care gives us the flexibility to strive for the best possible results, always in complete privacy and maximum comfort with the best Swiss luxury rehabilitation service available.