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Tackling eating disorders online

Tackling eating disorders online July 8, 2015Leave a comment

Read any article on eating disorders and you’ll inevitably come across the notion that mainstream media and the internet are the sole cause of eating disorders. While this is an over-simplified explanation for one of the deadliest forms of mental illness, these articles do have a point.

Being female and overweight in this day and age is one of the worst things you can be. You only have to spend five minutes reading a tabloid newspaper, or a glossy magazine, to realise this. The models the fashion industry wants us to admire – tiny. The female celebrities we’re supposed to love – tiny. The prom queens, the ‘popular girls’, the ‘trophy wives’ – tiny. Indeed, I’ve already written about the disastrous consequences of being a fat woman in the Western world, chiefly the discrimination women face for being anything more than thin.

As we force feed young girls images of thinness day in, day out, is it any wonder they begin to question their bodies? That they start to hate every inch of space they take up in this world? Of course, eating disorders are far more complex than this, and the reasons behind them are multiple, complicated and deeply personal – but traditional media certainly is helping matters.

But it isn’t as if these images are unique to traditional media. They are flooding social media too. There is a phenomenon known as “pro-ana” in which people – primarily young girls in the grips of an eating disorder or in a deeply troubled state – post photos of skeletal women, with supposedly ‘perfect’ bodies. They offer tips and tricks for losing weight in the most dangerous fashion.

Tumblr is a breeding ground for such sites, despite the blogging platform’s terms and conditions condemning them. Browsing tags such as “pro-ana”, “pro-mia”, “thinspo” and “thinspiration” brings up pages of images promoting not just a thin body, but an impossibly miniscule, unachievable – and unsustainable – body.

Such images and sites are used by both sufferers and non-sufferers alike, to fuel an unhealthy obsession with thinness. Nancy Tucker, a recovered anorexic and author of the fantastic book The Time in Between: A Memoir of Hunger and Hope, says she is incredibly lucky that social media was in its infancy when she was in the grips of her disorder. She explains how the competitive nature of both eating disorders and social media makes the online world an incredibly dangerous place for those with the condition.

Sadly, even if you steer clear of “pro-ana” and “thinspiration” sites, social media can still be an incredibly toxic place, especially for young girls with fragile self-esteem. Recently, I haven’t been able to scroll through Twitter without promoted tweets selling weight loss products popping up.

And despite my best efforts to only follow positive and interesting blogs on Tumblr, images of thin, blonde and white girls still flood my dashboard. Even people I know in real life are harping on about getting “beach body ready” at the first hint of sunshine. It’s as if they are physically incapable of setting foot on sand if they are above a size eight.

It’s clear that young women are absorbing the worrying message the world is forcing upon them – that to be thin is to win, and to be fat is to fail – which is being relentlessly mirrored back through their social media accounts.

The next time you feel the urge to post or repost a picture of the “30 Day Ab Challenge” on Instagram, or tweet about your latest juice cleanse (which is complete and utter rubbish, by the way), or reblog an impossibly thin ‘beautiful’ white girl on Tumblr, stop for a minute and think about the effect it could have.

Think of the message you’re sending to all the fat, black, disabled, queer, or moderately different girls that will see your post. You might think it’s harmless, that it’s your social media account and you can post whatever you like. But just remember that by equating beauty and perfection with thinness and whiteness, you’re automatically telling thousands of girls they are ugly, unworthy and imperfect.

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About the author

author_template - Olivia Woodward

Olivia Woodward

Olivia Woodward is a blogger, social media enthusiast and history student at the University of York. She has been actively involved in student journalism from the age of 16, writing on a wide range of topics from politics to theatre to fashion. In 2014 she launched Petticoats and Patriarchy, a blog that tackles social justice issues and popular culture from a feminist perspective. Since then, she has become increasingly interested in the way that women are using the internet to speak out against injustices, and the effect that the digital world is having on young women and girls globally. On Digital Women UK, Olivia will blog on social media trends that impact on women and young girls, intersectionality and intends to highlight examples of digital platforms being used to innovate the way women communicate and share online.

Find out more about Olivia Woodward at, or follow her on Twitter: @oawoodward .

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