‘Thinspiration’ on social media contributing to rise in body image issues

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Jessie Carlson says some people who follow her on Instagram think her life is perfect, but they don’t know the struggles she has suffered while recovering from anorexia.(Vimeo/Ashlyn McCleve)

Getting pregnant was the best thing that could have happened to recovering anorexic Jessie Carlson. It’s 4 p.m. on a slow afternoon in Los Hermanos in Provo. Carlson’s belly burgeoning on her otherwise petite frame, she explains the long road she has taken to get to where she is now — an experience she describes as both “debilitating and empowering.”

“It’s hard. I’m sitting here, three years into recovery, trying to finally accept my body and I scroll through Instagram where there are dozens of the same, perfect size zero girl,” she said. “I feel like I’m the only girl on my feed without a dang thigh gap. Or #goals relationship. It can be difficult to feel happy with myself.”

The term #goals is a trend quickly taking over the Internet. There are food goals, body goals, material wealth goals, fashion goals, vacation goals and squad goals. While working toward one’s dreams is something to be applauded, the #goals movement is not actually about setting a target. Instead, it focuses on envying a lifestyle that is virtually unattainable.

Whether this Internet trend is harmless or not, some recognize the danger of social media comparison.

Therapist Caroline Webb said self-bragging pictures of shiny, perfect lives on social media encourage other users to feel negative about their own lives and bodies.

Effects of pro-ana sites

Emily Dugan of Child Line, a 24-hour counseling service for recovering anorexics, said the number of children and teenagers who seek help for an eating disorder has increased by 110 percent in the past three years.

Dove’s Real Beauty and #speakbeautiful campaigns are seeking to change how female beauty is represented on social media by promoting positive self-image messages. (Twitter)

“We believe this dramatic increase could be attributed to several factors, including the increased pressure caused by social media, the growth of celebrity culture and the rise of anorexia websites,” Dugan said.

Pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia websites have existed for decades. But Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram and Pinterest have given these communities a global platform on which to share ideas and photographs. Users support one another’s behaviors through shared tips and tricks — and promote the notion that an eating disorder is a lifestyle choice and not a mental illness.

Images of Photoshopped legs, boney shoulder blades and jutting ribs are easily accessible by searching hashtags like #thinspogram, #thighgap or #bonespo. The photos are often accompanied by “thinspirational” messages: “Pretty girls don’t eat,” “Skip dinner, be thinner” and “You have to exercise for a week to work off the thigh fat from a single Snickers.”

A quick Internet search is all it takes to get advice on how to avoid food more easily (drink green tea or black coffee, look at yourself naked, chew ice cubes, pinch body fat, brush your teeth or clean a toilet until you lose your appetite). Some sites suggest starting a “fasting journal” and posting pictures of a person’s body to report progress.

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The makers of pro-anorexia sites are even making money off selling bracelets that promote anorexia.

Anonymous websites described as “pro-ana” feature references to the Red Bracelet Project, which encourages people suffering from anorexia to wear a red bracelet daily.  A Buzzfeed article explains that this project was originally intended to offer strength to eating disorder victims, but the project has developed pro-anorexia ties.

Recovering bulimic Larly Jade Catto said she threaded her own bracelet to remember her goal to lose 15 pounds. When she reached her goal, she would set a new one to lose more weight. She said when she tired of starving herself, she read girls’ stories and testimonials.

“It was easier to keep going down the road I was headed if I felt like I wasn’t alone and that it wasn’t too dangerous because all these other girls were doing the same thing around the world,” Catto said.

Addictive pattern of social media

In the age of self-promotion, selfies and at-home blogging, to post on a social network is essentially to create a brand. For branding purposes, people want life to look flawless. Feeds are filled with burgers, fries and macaroons. Food #goals are applauded and pressures to stay in shape abound at the same time.

Bloggers appear to eat what they want but also post gym selfies with perfect abs. They have artfully mastered the thigh gap while sporting the newest designer bikini in the Bahamas.

While most people are aware of Photoshop in magazines, advertisements and movies, some are unaware of the everyday re-touching of images. App filters and Photoshop allow individuals to retouch their own photos more than ever before.

These edits can present women with unachievable beauty standards, but Julie Hanks, owner and director of Wasatch Family Therapy, said her experience has taught her that “the reason behind eating disorders goes deeper than actually wanting to be thin or harboring jealous feelings of social media feeds,” she said.

“However, do I believe these unrealistic images serve as a catalyst to their mental illness?” Hanks said. “Absolutely. I believe social media is yet another outlet for impressionable people to feel insecure and depressed.”

Future of social media

The industry is craving a change. Celebrities are calling out magazines for Photoshopped and heavily airbrushed images. Models are speaking out against underage or underweight runway models. Instagram celebrities are working to inspire change by empowering women to believe confidence is beauty.

While pro-anorexic and pro-bulimic web content still exists, changing the way the media portrays women is a long-term goal for many advocacy groups, individuals and advertising agencies, including Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign and the #truthinads campaign. Some clothing producers have reacted to public pressure by promising never to use photoshopped models in their catalogs.

But Webb described a “compulsive quality” to smartphones and social media that distracts people from themselves and reality.

“Whenever we avoid negative feelings of boredom, sadness or anger, we become vulnerable to addictions and compulsions,” she said. “I would consider social media just as strong of an addiction as an eating disorder. It is a gateway drug to larger problems.”

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