Instagram's Pro Anorexia Controversy Lauren Ash

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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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  1. [...] fan sites has opened my eyes. I’ve seen accounts posting pictures of cutitng, I’ve seen pro-anorexia photos, and I’ve seen tons of girls running multiple accounts and sharing intimate details online. Most [...]

  2. Ok, so I was warned about looking at the photos on Instagram – but curiosity got the best of me. I’m so distraught! You always hear of the scary side to social media – that dark side that everyone know is there but doesn’t really look for it. Having found it now (ONE of the dark sides anyways) – it’s scary! This is a great post and so – honest. It brings this issue to light and I for one, would have never known people post this stuff on Instagram.

  3. I gained experience with the “thinspo” phenom from a calorie counting website. Here a community of users are able to track their caloric intake with a food diary. Food diaries can be public and girls who follow the “thinspo” trend will post frighteningly low calorie counts as a badge of honor. “Look at me, I only consumed 60 calories today.” For me, stumbling onto the dark side of this fitness website was overwhelming. Especially once I began reading and exploring more, further down the rabbit hole of protruding ribs and thigh gaps I went. I found myself adding a few of these girls as friends hoping I could help. I would encourage them to eat healthy, post on to their profiles words of encouragement, compliments, “good-job”, “have-a-great-day!’. I would tell them how beautiful and perfect they already were. Ask them why they didn’t eat lunch, why all they had to eat for the day was a cracker, etc. I have to tell you, getting this involved was a very slippery slope and it ended up making me more depressed and made me feel absolutely helpless. I started feeling as though one girl in particular was simply using me to fuel her need for attention; the more I responded the worse her self-hate comments became. It was just too much. I tried helping a complete stranger through social media and I failed. I failed because I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what these girls needed. I found myself getting frustrated and angry at them and it caused me to quit altogether. I agree something has to be done but it’s difficult to influence anyone as an individual. You’re right, this issue is bigger than anyone realizes.

  4. I gained experience with the “thinspo” phenom from a calorie counting website. Here a community of users are able to track their caloric intake with a food diary. Food diaries can be public and girls who follow the “thinspo” trend will post frighteningly low calorie counts as a badge of honor. “Look at me, I only consumed 60 calories today.” For me, stumbling onto the dark side of this fitness website was overwhelming. Especially once I began reading and exploring more, further down the rabbit hole of protruding ribs and thigh gaps I went. I found myself adding a few of these girls as friends hoping I could help. I would encourage them to eat healthy, post on to their profiles words of encouragement, compliments, “good-job”, “have-a-great-day!’. I would tell them how beautiful and perfect they already were. Ask them why they didn’t eat lunch, why all they had to eat for the day was a cracker, etc. I have to tell you, getting this involved was a very slippery slope and it ended up making me more depressed and made me feel absolutely helpless. I started feeling as though one girl in particular was simply using me to fuel her need for attention; the more I responded the worse her self-hate comments became. It was just too much. I tried helping a complete stranger through social media and I failed. I failed because I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what these girls needed. I found myself getting frustrated and angry at them and it caused me to quit altogether. I agree something has to be done but it’s difficult to influence anyone as an individual. It’s bigger than I realized.

  5. Wow… I didn’t even know about all of this. D=
    A lot of people suggested to trace and contact those who post such things. However, I fear that’s as good as impossible. From a legal viewpoint this issue is very problematic: firstly, it would violate online privacy/anonymity and secondly, these pages feature an international audience , which makes legal matters even more complicated.
    I, however, do hope that we’ll find a way to make these people aware of what they’re doing to themselves and to other people. That’s why I like your last paragraph a lot – these people are, or at least could be, family members or friends…

  6. I see these “thinspo” images all over pinterest as well. In one five minute scroll of pinterest you can find loads of these images sprinkled in among normal pins. Sometimes I find myself feeling fat and inadequate just from the few images that I stumble upon. So I can’t even imagine what it does to people that seek these images out. It’s sad that women today measure their self worth on what they look like. And it bothers me that we, as women, let this happen. It’s an epidemic that needs to be stopped; we all need to change the way that we think in order for things to start to get better. Stop the emphasis on outward appearance and start focusing on people as a whole (myself included!!). If only we knew how to set this change in motion…

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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?

    • 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.

  10. 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

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

  12. 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.

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

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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).

    • 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.

  17. 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).

  18. 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.

  19. 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.