CBC News.com is reporting on the sites which proudly display women with protruding hips and ribs who toss around “thinspirational” quotes that encourage girls to get thin regardless of the health risk.
One of the most popular quotes is from super-model Kate Moss who says, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”
Girls who visit these Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube sites gain dozens of followers by posting pictures of their “thigh gaps” and “bikini bridges”.
For example, one young user posted a claim saying that she’s been fasting for a day and receives 32 “likes” and a “great job” from commenters.
“Some also leverage likes, retweets and comments to set rigid rules about eating and exercise,” CBS reports. "’Name a food and I won't eat it for two weeks’ reads one user's Instagram photo. Another user posts an intricate workout list; for each share, she'll do one set of those exercises.”
It’s come to be known as the #thinspo world and it’s snaring more and more young girls into unhealthy eating habits that could leave them damaged for the rest of their lives.
The problem is that the sites provide "a lot of positivity for them, just in a very maladaptive way," says Edward Selby, assistant professor of clinical psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Selby is director of a lab there that studies what makes people more likely to develop anorexia (self-starvation), bulimia (binge-eating and purging) and other eating disorders.
People suffering from these diseases often feel good after exercising, purging, swallowing a laxative or doing other things that contribute to their illness, Selby says.
Referring to it as a “cyclic feedback loop”, the positive emotions generated by these sites pushes girls to engage in these risky behaviors by celebrating their unhealthy achievements.
The same can be said about “pro ana bracelets” sold by a website calling itself “Ana Boot Camp”.
The red beaded bracelets are meant to help the “eating disordered” to “identify each other and let others know that they aren't alone.” This fraternal communion is not for the purpose of encouraging them to recover, however, but is intended to inspire them to continue to be “pro ana”.
Another site, called the “Ana Belles” lists the “Ten Thin Laws” for girls which include never admitting that you're skinny enough or allowing your stomach to growl, requiring five to seven days a month of fasting along with two hours of exercise a day for seven days a week.
"Binges should only occur at a maximum of once every six weeks and must be kept private, if you expect perfection. Purging and excessive exercise MUST follow… otherwise, thou art a failure," one law states.
"You shall weigh yourself at least three times a day and hate yourself no matter what the number is," another law states.
It goes on to glorify protruding bones: "Wrist bones are infatuation. Ribs are sexy. Collar bones are beautiful. Hip bones are love. Back bones are submission, but the two bones that connect ankle to your foot, those are perfection."
Sadly, these sick sites aren’t new. They’ve been around for years according to Dr. Rebecka Peebles of the Eating Disorder Assessment and Treatment Program at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia She published an analysis of more than 200 of these sites in 2010, one of which had more than 100,000 visitors.
Now these same sites are expanding onto social media such as Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, all of which have pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia content that is very similar to the sites Peebles studied.
The good news is that Instagram has attempted to curb the community’s growth by banning hashtags that glorify self-harm such as #probulimia and #proanorexia, but people have simply tweaked their hashtags into more neutral ones such as #anagirl and #thygap.
Tumblr, Facebook and Pinterest have also attempted to circumvent users' access to material that promotes self-harm.
What is needed are more role models for recovering anorexics, such as Antonia Eriksson, a 20-year-old student living in Linköping, Sweden, who purged all “thinspirational” accounts three years ago when she was hospitalized for anorexia.
"They're really dangerous," she says about the sites. "It would help me in my eating disorder, like in the most negative way... It would keep me sick."
Instead, Eriksson is now running an Instagram account focused on fitness and healthy eating.
But she knows how easy it is for young girls to “get stuck” in the #thinspo world. Once identifying herself as an #ANAwarrior, her new Instagram account name is eatmoveimprove and posts pictures of selfies with sleek toned muscles rather than protruding bones.
Thankfully, she gained more than 40,000 followers and credits her new Instagram family for helping her to recover. "I wanted to show them that it was possible," she told CBS. "So I just kept fighting it."
Peebles believe more needs to be done to help girls resist the culturally-fueled notion that women need to be skinny to the point of illness in order to be beautiful, a temptation that lures more than just girls who are already thin.
In fact, one of her studies found that the majority of people who visit these sites actually have a healthy body mass index. But in spite of not being underweight, they "scored out of the stratosphere" for disordered eating behaviors with nearly three-quarters admitting that they had purged, binged or used laxatives to help them lose weight. This means physicians are not aware of the fact that girls with eating disorders are among the seemingly healthy population, Peebles said.
"Who are the walking wounded with these illnesses that ... are all among us and we're not identifying and helping them?" she asks. "If we were helping them effectively, I think the websites would be a lot less intriguing to them."
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