Social Media Promoting Eating Disorders

two teenage girls taking a selfie

Social media can be a dangerous place for people suffering from eating disorders or in danger of developing an eating disorder.

One of the most appealing features of social media is that we can find communities of people we would likely never encounter in person who share our interests and values. However, this can sometimes mean that we become surrounded by ideas and images that promote unhealthy behavior.

The glorification of thinness is everywhere in all forms of media, but the promotion of thinness and weight loss can be more concentrated as well as more extreme on certain social media platforms. Social media adds to the volume of messages and images that casually promote slenderness, but these platforms are also home to blogs and communities that explicitly advocate weight loss and even eating disorders.

Thinspo and Fitspo

The “thinspiration” (thinspo) and “fitspiration” (fitspo) movements have developed an enormous presence online. Thinspo, although it does not always promote eating disorders by name, is dominated by images of unrealistically and dangerously thin women (and very occasionally men) meant to serve as inspiration for people to lose significant amounts of weight. The fitspo movement largely arose as an attempt to counter thinspo by promoting exercise and fitness rather than thinness, but many critics say that the images fitspo uses are equally unrealistic and therefore potentially dangerous to people seeking impossible results from their diet and exercise plans.

And then there is pro-ana, a largely Internet- and social media-based subculture that actively promotes the eating disorder anorexia. The related term pro-mia can refer to the glorification of bulimia, although pro-ana is often used to cover the promotion of both types of disordered eating. Pro-ana claims that anorexia is a personal choice that should be respected by the medical community, and pro-ana groups endorse eating disorders and share ways to lose weight and disguise weight loss. Thinspo images and quotes feature prominently on pro-ana sites.

Disguised Pro-ana Sites Particularly Dangerous

Pro-ana blogs support dangerously unhealthy behavior among disordered eaters who are not seeking treatment, but they can also pose a threat to people who are trying to recover from disordered eating. This is due to the fact that many of these sites have had to disguise themselves as eating disorder recovery support groups in order to survive. Some social media platforms, including Facebook and Yahoo Groups, will delete pro-ana-related groups on the grounds that they promote self-harm. As a result, many groups will describe themselves as pro-recovery sites when in fact the members continue to encourage and assist each other to lose weight and to disguise their eating disorders from their doctors, parents and friends.

This is dangerous enough for people who deliberately seek out pro-ana groups, but it is also dangerous for people who go searching for recovery support and instead find their illness being glorified and encouraged. Many professionals worry that this kind of exposure can derail a person’s recovery and prolong the illness.

Eating disorders are psychological disorders with serious physical consequences. Research suggests that anorexia nervosa is more deadly than any other psychological disorder, with a nearly 10 percent mortality rate. People who do not die from anorexia can still suffer long-term health effects, including loss of critical bone mass, heart damage and weakened immune systems.

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