When I did a Google search for research on this article, Google asked, “did you mean ‘inspiration and eating disorders?’” I genuinely wish I did.
Yes, the internet has created the possibility for us to access inspirational images, quotes, stories, and people that can support eating disorder treatment, advocacy, and recovery.
Unfortunately, it has also provided the opportunity for individuals to create and search for “thinspiration,” a distorted version of inspiration that promotes thinness via images, tips, and tutorials. Some people may view these as “aspirational.” But, let’s get real, “thinspiration” is nothing but harmful, and here’s why.
The trend of “thinspiration” came about through social networking sites.
Defined more specifically, “thinspiration” posts are body idealizing social media content “characterised by idealised depictions of excessively thin bodies, glorification of extreme caloric-restriction and associated thinness-oriented dieting behaviours, and emotional support and validation for individuals struggling to maintain their thinness-oriented attitudes and behaviors .”
Sadly, these posts not only exist, but they are also popular with thousands being posted a day and an estimated millions existing on the internet . This trend also exists in content labeled as “fitspiration,” which pose as messages intending to “inspire people to live healthy and fit lifestyles through motivating and diet-related images and text .”
Despite the attempt to appear focused on “fitness” rather than “thinness,” this content often “emphasizes appearance and attractiveness, rather than health, as motivation for engaging in fitness behaviors .”
Unsurprisingly, studies have found that, while “thinspiration” focuses more on weight loss and thinness, both content types emphasized “objectification, dieting, and guilt about body weight or shape .”
These types of content are wolves in sheep’s clothing marketed as helpful ways for individuals to feel more connected to their bodies, when, honestly, the messages are “consistent with the attitudes and beliefs that characterize eating disordered psychopathology .”
These images are proven to increase individual experiences of body dissatisfaction, a key diagnostic criterion in eating disorders . One study found that exposure to “thinspiration” and “fitspiration” was associated with individuals comparing their physical appearance to the images more as well as reporting greater eating disorder symptoms .
This comparison is part of the reason people engage with this content, virtually torturing themselves and fueling their disordered thoughts and behaviors by viewing images of excessive thinness that their unwell minds tell them they need to attain.
Individuals that post this content are not well either, as research shows that they report significant eating disorder behaviors .
After society and social media sites learned of the danger these images pose, many of them began cracking down on this content, allowing users to report them.
One site where “thinspiration” and “fitspiration” ran rampant, Pinterest, banned this content in 2012, forbidding any content that “”creates a risk of harm, loss, physical or mental injury, emotional distress, death, disability, disfigurement or physical or mental illness to yourself, to any other person, or to any animal.” The website Tumblr has jumped on board with this as well.
Despite this, there will always be loopholes and dark corners of the internet where dangerous content like this slips past.
Whether you are a professional supporting people in recovery from an eating disorder, a concerned parent, or a sufferer working toward recovery, it is essential to be aware that this content exists and that research and horror stories show that it is associated with harmful eating disorder thoughts and behaviors.
Resources: Griffiths, S. et al. (2017). How does exposure to thinspiration and fitspiration relate to symptoms severity among individuals with eating disorders? Evaluation of a proposed model. Body Image, 187-195.  Alberga, A. S., Withnell, S. J., von Ranson, K. M. (2018). Fitspiration and thinspiration: A comparison across three social networking sites. Journal of Eating Disorders, 6:39.
About the Author:
Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.
As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on March 25, 2019.
Reviewed & Approved on March 25, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com