Why Pro-Anorexic Content Still Flourishes On Sites That Have Banned It and Who's Really To Blame

Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest have all banned so-called "thinspirational" images--but has it really helped? That's the question many news outlets, including New York Daily News, Jezebel, and Mashable are asking--and with good reason. But while the question may be on everybody's lips, the answers are far from forthcoming. "I think its too soon to tell [if the banning of thinspo images will have a large impact on the pro-ana community]," Lynn S. Grefe, MA, President and CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, told me over the phone. While Mashable claims Pinterest has done "little-to-nothing to edit out the pro-anorexia content," siting the fact that hundreds of images still come up when you search a tag like "thinspo," it's worth remembering that Pinterest's new terms of use only went into effect on April 6, and that successfully policing the images is going to be a slow process. Officially banning the content, regardless of how immediately effective that new policy is, is certainly the first step. "I really have to applaud [Pinterest and Tumblr] for working with us and for making the effort," Grefe said. "I think it's huge that they did it. It needed to be done but a lot more needs to be done."
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Hayley Phelan
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Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest have all banned so-called "thinspirational" images--but has it really helped? That's the question many news outlets, including New York Daily News, Jezebel, and Mashable are asking--and with good reason. But while the question may be on everybody's lips, the answers are far from forthcoming. "I think its too soon to tell [if the banning of thinspo images will have a large impact on the pro-ana community]," Lynn S. Grefe, MA, President and CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, told me over the phone. While Mashable claims Pinterest has done "little-to-nothing to edit out the pro-anorexia content," siting the fact that hundreds of images still come up when you search a tag like "thinspo," it's worth remembering that Pinterest's new terms of use only went into effect on April 6, and that successfully policing the images is going to be a slow process. Officially banning the content, regardless of how immediately effective that new policy is, is certainly the first step. "I really have to applaud [Pinterest and Tumblr] for working with us and for making the effort," Grefe said. "I think it's huge that they did it. It needed to be done but a lot more needs to be done."
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Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest have all banned so-called "thinspirational" images--but has it really helped? That's the question many news outlets, including New York Daily News, Jezebel, and Mashable are asking.

But while the question may be on everybody's lips, the answers are far from forthcoming. "I think it's too soon to tell [if the banning of thinspo images will have a large impact on the pro-ana community]," Lynn S. Grefe, MA, President and CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Both Pinterest and Tumblr have been working with NEDA to ban pro-ana content.

While Mashable claims Pinterest has done "little-to-nothing to edit out the pro-anorexia content," citing the fact that hundreds of images still come up when you search a tag like "thinspo," it's worth remembering that Pinterest's new terms of use only went into effect on April 6, and that successfully policing the images is going to be a slow process. Officially banning the content, regardless of how immediately effective that new policy is, is certainly the first step.

"I really have to applaud [Pinterest and Tumblr] for working with us and for making the effort," Grefe said. "I think it's huge that they did it. It needed to be done but a lot more needs to be done."

Part of the problem, Grefe explains, is that pro-anorexic communities can develop what she calls a "secret language." If tags like "thin," "thinspo," and "pro-ana," get banned, users intent on self-harm will surely make up new ones. Failing that, they can always find a new social media site or online community.

"I actually went to the justice department about [Pro-Ana] sites years ago," Grefe tells me. "But you can't control it. Anybody can create a website. If you ban [pro-anorexia sites in the United States], then you start getting the same sites popping up in other countries that everyone can still access."

Grefe added that while she hopes Tumblr and Pinterest's new policies will make a positive impact on the self-harm community, she doesn't know what will help to completely rid the internet of such sites. "If I knew the answer to that, we wouldn't be in this position."

So, if you can't stem the flow of pro-anorexic content online, why not go straight to the source?

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Grefe says that Tumblr, Pinterest and Facebook aren't the only ones who need to make changes. "We need changes everywhere, we need changes in the media in general, we need changes in our society," she said.

It's worth noting that many of these so-called "thinspo" images originally appeared in the pages of mainstream fashion magazines. We've come to accept that photos of super-thin models will populate the pages of some of our favorite magazines, but here's the thing: What's the difference between an image of a bikini-clad model, under the headline of "Lose 5 Pounds Now!" in the pages of a fashion mag and that very same image tagged as "thinspo" on Pinterest?

Grefe says there isn't much of a difference at all. "When will it end? When will the media start showing real bodies and real skin again?" she lamented. Micro-blogging sites may get a bad rep for hosting pro-anorexic communities, but the mainstream fashion media is just as much at fault.

"Anna Wintour, that's who you need to be interviewing," Grefe tells me. She has a point: According to this video posted on Proud 2 B Me, a site run by NEDA to promote self-confidence in teenage girls, 48% of American teenage girls said they wished they could be as skinny as models after just three minutes leafing through a fashion magazine.

And it's not just the proliferation of extremely thin (and photoshopped) images that appear in magazines that's dangerous either. Grefe says the media's portrayal of dieting can be "appalling."

This image, originally printed in Vogue Italia is tagged as "thinspo" online

This image, originally printed in Vogue Italia is tagged as "thinspo" online

"The way [diets] are pushed and misrepresented, is really dangerous," she said. "The [media is] really encouraging people to weight cycle."

"People have gotten so misinformed and so panicked about the quote-on-quote obesity epidemic, that we have people in a panic about weight," she continued. "[But] the focus should be about moderation; it should be about health, and instead we're putting it on size and appearance."

She added that while the cause of a person's eating disorder is complicated, and that there are always biological factors at play, NEDA maintains that the "majority of [eating disorders] start with a diet." [ed. note: I didn't even bother asking Grefe how she felt about Vogue's recent article about putting a seven-year-old on a diet...]

Of course, the media is not wholly culpable--a girl's peer group, family and self-esteem issues are just as much at play. However, the media, and fashion magazines in particular, could exercise far more sensitivity when selecting their content. Magazines wouldn't promote tips they knew could potentially cause say, skin cancer, in even ten percent of their readers (just look at the way mags portray tanning these days)--so why are they still printing content that they know may trigger a potentially life-threatening disease in several of their readers?

The point is that whether or not Pinterest and Tumblr's new policies are working, they are certainly not the only ones at blame for the huge proliferation of pro-anorexic content.