Thinspiration and pro-ana are terms describing a disturbing trend online and especially on social media that involves supporting people in developing eating disorders. Type either term into a search engine and you will find any number of sites, social media groups, chat rooms and forums dedicated to members supporting each other in the quest to be thin at any cost. Do these websites and groups cause people to develop eating disorders? Do they worsen the condition in someone who already has one? Do they hinder recovery? Researchers and concerned professionals are trying to find out.
What Is Pro-Ana?
The term pro-ana stands for pro-anorexia and refers to support for the eating disorder. That is, pro-ana means supporting the continuation of the disorder, not recovery from it. Other terms include thinspiration and pro-mia for bulimia. The underground movement for young women to support each other’s unhealthy weight loss has been around for years. The explosion of social media, however, has made the movement more noticeable and easier to access. People on pro-ana websites and forums give each other tips and tricks for losing weight quickly and for coping with other aspects of eating disorders. They provide each other with motivation to keep losing weight and post images of ribs and hips jutting out of dangerously thin bodies.
Impact of Pro-Ana Sites
In the U.S., nearly 24 million people struggle with an eating disorder, whether that means anorexia, bulimia or binge eating. Most of these people are young women between the ages of 12 and 25. These young people are Internet-savvy and know how to navigate social media. Researchers from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University wanted to find out just how pro-ana sites contribute to the problem of eating disorders. The researchers investigated and reviewed the sites and their users. They found that more than 90 percent of pro-ana sites were accessible to the general public and easy for young people to access. In reviewing all of the sites, the researchers found that most included content that encouraged anorexic or bulimic behaviors as well as inspirational and interactive materials and suggestions for how to engage in disordered eating. Only 38 percent of the sites provided links or resources for recovery from eating disorders.
In response, sites like Tumblr and Instagram have tried to ban content related to the terms thinspiration and pro-ana and have updated guidelines to discourage messages that promote self-harm. In addition, some organizations are taking measures to promote positive body image. Often led by young people who have suffered from low self-esteem or eating disorders, these groups are making a real difference. For instance, one young man succeeded in forcing teen clothing store Abercrombie & Fitch to offer a greater range of sizes. Negative messages will always be available to those who search them out, but with positive messages to counteract them, there is hope.