Instagram's Pro Anorexia ControversyLauren Ash

Image via Shutterstock

Instagram, the popular social media photo-sharing app, has recently brought a very serious issue to light. It seems that some people (mostly teenaged females) have been using the photo service to share ideas and images that are pro anorexia. Using hashtags like #Ana and #Thinspo, Instagram has started posting a warning message when you search for one of those tags which basically says that you are about to see graphic content and lists a website for eating disorder support. Once you click “see images”, a sea of images bombards you. Over 306,000 and counting for #Ana alone.

I decided to take a look at what exactly was happening. What I found made me feel viscerally ill. There are girls motivating one another not to eat. Posting photographs of themselves with protruding hipbones and rib cages saying things like “stupid body”, “fat cow”, “starve bitch starve” and the list goes on and on.

One photo was just of a handwritten note that said “Don’t eat. You’re fat” over and over again on it; friends commenting things like, “We can do it together!”

One image that really troubled me was a pic of a typed quote that said ”I think a lot, but I don’t say much. – Anne Frank” Under it the user wrote “I WILL NOT EAT THAT STUPID DONUT” and other comments about being fat. I’m not exactly sure what the connection to Anne Frank is but suggesting a connection between trying to be anorexic and a persecuted child in the holocaust makes me feel sick on numerous levels. Another image was of a very thin girl in a hospital gown. It said “Depression is a cage. Cutting is a coping system for time. Suicide is the key that fits the lock.” After that last image, I started to notice a pattern. Many of the usernames posting these pics had the word “cutting” or “cutter” in them. I logged this observation and continued to scroll.

Then the images started to get worse. One showed a forearm with hundreds of cutting scars and a bandaid over part of the arm with “Sorry :(” written on it. This photo had 22 likes.

Naively, I was curious about the connection between #Ana and cutting. Of course, I have learned that they are intrinsically linked. I clicked on the hashtag “cutting”. This brought up pics of body parts with bleeding cuts on them. Some with captions like “I wish I was dead.” One girl had actually cut the words “HELP ME” into her arm.

The last photo I looked at was a girl who had photographed herself with a feeding tube up her nose – treatment for her extreme eating disorders. Under it, she talked about how fat she felt. At this point, I had to stop. As I write this now, I’m crying.

We have an epidemic on our hands. And at first I thought that Instagram photo sharing was merely a symptom of a far greater problem.

My immediate thoughts were that the Instagram issue was helpless. So what if they shut down these troubling hashtags? Then the people involved just get creative. When Instagram blocked #selfharm, the tag #blithe was born. An innocuous code word for pro anorexia and cutting photos.

“What is the answer?” I thought. Should Instagram be personally contacting each of these people directly? Providing information on how to get help? Maybe that would work! Even if that helped one girl, saved one life, wouldn’t it be worth it? But with 306 000+ photos linked to #Ana alone, is this even possible? Could you even reach each person before it could be too late?

But then I had a very different thought. Of course this issue has always existed. And pro-anorexia sites have existed for as long as the internet has. But never has there been the level of immediacy that things like Twitter and Instagram provide us. Fifteen years ago, pro-anorexia sites existed but creating and updating one took time. Now, anyone with a smart phone can upload a photo and receive immediate feedback and encouragement to starve themselves.

Part of me feels like Instagram should delete each and every one of these photos. Disable all related hashtags. Show zero tolerance for such content. I know that even if Instagram washes itself clean of these posts, the problem does not go away. But as much as I personally love social media, I think it’s exacerbating the problem. It’s making these girls feel like they’re not alone but in a backwards way. For as many people that get help and solace from others suffering from similar issues, there are just as many who get encouraged to continue their highly dangerous and destructive behavior.

So with that said, the problem is far bigger. It’s global. It’s pervasive and it’s everywhere we turn.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504251897 Lauren Jean St. Martin

    What if, instead of taking down those hashtags, we used them to find the girls who are hurting and encouraged them to get help? Told them they were beautiful without looking skeletal. Like you said, shutting them down won’t help, so why don’t we use them for some good? Just a thought.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1749313490 Jordyn Reed

    Why dont we flood the negative hashtags with positive inspirational messages?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=503780246 Lauren Elizabeth Ash

      I think that’s a great idea Jordyn!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=745699920 Katie Crawford

      That is a wonderful idea that I think I just might start doing ASAP. <3

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=636560049 Nicci O’Boyle

      I LOVE that idea! Post loving messages…. something, anything… maybe it will through to at least one person. The fact that there is a place for girls to encourage other girls to harm themselves breaks my heart. Whatever we can do to love on them we should do without hesitation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=290300161 Rachelle Soup Savoie

    I feel like I remember Tumblr actually took action in regards to blogs on their site dedicated to pro-eating disorders and self harm and takes down any blog that encourages dangerous behaviours like this. Not to say that I’m sure some slip through, but it is better than nothing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=506585130 Colleen Sweeney

    My sister takes a photo every day she decides to get dressed, put on makeup, and do her hair (she usually walks around in her pjs). She is plus-size, and follows a whole bunch of pro-“bigger is beautiful” groups on Instagram. She values her looks highly, and for her to do this with the amount of fat shaming that goes on in this modern society says a lot. She also gets no hate, but lots of praise from all shapes and sizes (as well as genders).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=668489349 Fiona Potter
    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=506585130 Colleen Sweeney

      That article is kind of jerky. The article is angry about men being denied the right to decide what is sexy in those images, and yet you have the lone comment from a guy about women just needing some aerobics and not becoming anorexic. It’s kind of a split issue.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=695897938 Catrina Huskey

        I totally agree. That article is bullsh*t.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=676390710 Matt Crow

      And look how SOME men respond*

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1286002086 Katrina Weeny Edmond

    when i was reading this i didn’t believe it. i mean, how could i? who on earth would do this to themself. then i looked it up on tumblr. and this is all true. there are thousands apon thousands of photo’s just on the the tag ana. this is obscene. there NEEDS to be a change.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=516120017 Christa Roby

    I don’t understand why you titled this “Instagram’s Pro Anorexia Controversy”, this is an issue way beyond Instagram and much older than that too. I am kind of astounded that people are just now realizing this issue and are now hearing about ana and thinspo pictures and videos. This has been going on forever and it is not Instagrams battle to fight. We need to do something about it, not them.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=516120017 Christa Roby

      This is coming from a person who watched all of those videos and participated as a young teen.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=503780246 Lauren Elizabeth Ash

        Hey Christa! As I stated in the piece, this is an issue that has existed for FAR longer than Instagram has. Instagram’s stance on the issue made the news and this was an article based on that news story. That’s why there was a focus on Instagram. The “controversy” was in regards to the stories in the press about this.

        Sadly, a lot of people don’t know that this is going on. So hopefully this piece will raise even a little bit of awareness.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=698077186 Cierra Timpson

    Let’s add a message of love and friendship and upload them with the negative hashtags. Maybe someone might see them who is searching these hashtags and rethink what they’re doing. Screw it, I’m doing it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1730635548 Niko Lina

    This is a very difficult issue. Having suffered from eating disorders myself due to many reasons, I know how hard it is to get out of this. Even in therapy groups seeing a girl who was in danger of dying only triggered thoughts like “compared to her I’m just fat”. No matter how much you want to get out of this, as soon as you see people with similar problems, you fall back into your old behavior because for anorexics gaining weight paradoxically equals losing control over your body. I always knew that this doesn’t make sense and is completely illogical but I was never able to recover until I cut every tie to people with similar problems. It’s like drug abuse: addicts in groups are more likely to support each other in destructive than productive behavior. So shutting up groups like these and deleting the pictures will not solve the problem but it might make some people think about it and encourage them to seek help. I know how destructive these sites can be. It was only a few months ago that for the first time in my life I thought of a woman of being slightly too skinny so I guess I’m finally (after 13 years..) on the right track but I still cannot visit one of those sites without feeling bad. Their influence mustn’t be underestimated! Making it harder for them to go viral will certainly be a good step in the right direction.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=721160437 Tedi Smith

    Really insightful. This is often and issue that gets pushed under a rug. Thanks for bringing it to light even more. (At least for me).

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1547103762 Andrea Bergman

    Sick. I just read that anorexia is a linked to a female version of Aspergers. Maybe if these girls could find out a healthier outlet to release their anxieties (such as a distracting fun hello giggles app prior to self harm).

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001238751632 Alissa Marie

      Anorexia being linked to a female version of Aspergers doesn’t make sense. Males can and have been anorexic too. They aren’t talked about a lot, but anorexia is a problem with males as much as it is to females.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=561945373 Kate SexRiot Diamond

    Self harm and anorexia nervosa are ILLNESSES. You cannot make them go away, simply by stopping pictures being posting online. Anorexia nervosa and self harm have been around since the dawn of recorded medicine, they are not caused by Instagram, Tumblr, the media, or anyone else you want to blame. You cannot cause someone to be anorexic. Sure, you can cause them to indulge in anorexic behavior for a time, to put that thinking out there, but you cannot cause Anorexia Nervosa anymore than you can cause Type 1 diabetes, or near sightedness.

    Trust me, the girls you need to worry about are the ones NOT posting on Instagram. Who are pretending, even to themselves that they do not have this illness, while it slowly steals their mind, body, and eventually their lives.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=681288592 Tamar Feast

    Really? *more* sharing by teenage girls of their struggles and body image and emotional journeys? might that not just break the Internet? I already have Sympathy Fatigue – I’m spent. If I see images of self harm and carved arms I find it hard to muster much genuine feeling; and certainly nothing like “viscerally ill”. But then, I’m a grunge-era girl – people did it then as a fashion statement.
    This goes unnoticed because the only people looking out for it tend to be kindred spirits. It’s the sharing of self-inflicted shrapnel wounds. I can’t think of anything or anyone stopping it, except it stopping itself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1524072621 Anna Sophie Greiffenberg

    I think this is a personal thing and personal issue which can’t be polarized by just this one instance .

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1017853538 Tara Martin Hyde

    It’s very interesting…some of the comments posted about this article. This article is not blaming Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or any other social media for anorexia or self harm…it’s simply stating that we need to start supporting and encouraging healthy images and promote NOT supporting the following of these hashtags that are promoting these life threatening behaviors. I have a personal attachment to this topic and will be sharing this message of hope to those I feel would be encouraged by it. I believe that’s all the author really wants anyway.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=503780246 Lauren Elizabeth Ash

      Thanks for this message Tara! You hit the nail right on the head.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=568795071 Riley Houlahan

    Great article! I loved you on Almost Heroes o.o

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1191475878 Brittany Rex

    the problem is that we over popularize being thin and then we give the girls who think this is the way to do it the freedom to make other people think so. Fact is that I think these girls are only looking for attention. Most people who cut dont show it off to the world nor do they brag like this. they want attention. Im sorry to say but its true

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=929853 Loredana Croda

    I’m sure folks have tried this, but perhaps using the Hashtags to post self help, or crisis hotline information, or some type of re-assuring message would be beneficial. I guess they could just come up with new hashtags, but if it saves one person, right?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=898925563 Em Bee

      Lauren Jean St Martin said… “What if, instead of taking down those hashtags, we used them to find the girls who are hurting and encouraged them to get help?”. Great idea. I would join instagram just for this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1788326458 Francisco Daniel Arce Solis

    This is problem tha has been existing for a long time, and it seems its a battle that appears to never end. i think, as a male of 22 years old, that most of the problem resides back home, and this movement and hashtags on instagram and other social media sites, are just the tipof the iceberg; have you remember all the traggic stories that were happening all over 2012? suicides, bullying problems, damm!, there was a lot of things that if i start to list in here i will never end. what im trying to say its that all this situation its a kind of a scream for help from all our youth, an escape valve to all the problems that are happening in all our teens, in their schools, in their relationships, even in their homes. Maybe what we need to do is make the help reach them as soon as we detect or see that something its happening, i mean, there are a lot of groups of support, but frankly, sometimes we dont know how or where you can find them, so as the mayority of ladies have said in here, we should use this social media tools as a way to contact the people who are suffering this kind of troubles, create support spaces to make them know they are not alone, as someone in the above comments said, share life stories that motivate everyone that this have a way out, and it doenst have to be taking away your life or attempting tu hurt yourself; what im trying to say maybe will sound cheesy, but we need to bring them love, support and a way to embrace themselves and start to build a solid selfsteem, even we need to prevent this via educating our chindren (in a little more years in my case…) to set the rage and hate aside ans start to give respect and love for all the people in the world, to start love the other one for that make them spacial and unique, and not to point at them and make fun of it, to embrace our unique characteristics and do the same for the ones of the other. Thanks for open a disscusion for this subject and sorry for the long post. I wish a lot more of success for each one of you and your awesome website.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002479813114 Rachel Gosselin

    I personally feel that a lot of these issues we face in society (self harm, suicides, disorders, depression) are not necessarily caused by the viewing of harmful images on social media websites. However, some recent studies have shown an increase in depression among Americans (I can’t really speak for other internet-using countries). These studies show the increase in depression being due to the intensity of the online world, since it is very much like real life social interaction, but more overwhelming. Therefore, the increase of depression is probably more linked to the overall mediums of the internet and social media, rather than the content they present. Along with this increase, however, the feelings of despair and desperation when hearing about these cases could also be due to the increase of media coverage over the past few years.

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