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.