Pinterest’s anorexia dilemma

It's time to do more than just ban pro-eating disorder content. We need to reach out

Topics: Pinterest, Tumblr, Eating Disorders,

Pinterest's anorexia dilemma (Credit: lev dolgachov via Shutterstock chalk)

It’s a lesson that keeps getting learned on the Internet: You can’t make bad things go away with a flick of the delete key. So when, last month, instant meme generator Tumblr and beloved cat lady destination Pinterest updated their terms of service to discourage pro-eating disorder sentiment, they did not, in fact, actually cure eating disorders.

The attempt to tamp down the shadowy pro-eating disorder community has been raging nearly as long as the community itself has existed. It’s a well-intentioned effort. But every new opportunity for social media is also a new opportunity for like-minded spirits to converge in anonymity. You don’t have to look far online to see the vibrantly sad and scary pro-ana (as in anorexia), pro-mia (as in bulimia) worlds alive and well and starving themselves to death.

So despite the ostensible crackdown, you can still find plenty of #thinspo on Pinterest, with photos of whippet-skinny women and encouragement not to stop “until you’re proud” and “see a 0 on your clothing tag.” Likewise, you can find plenty of #thinspo reminders on Tumblr that “Empty stomach, you’ll learn to love it …” And a quick search for “thinspo” on Instagram turns up well over 46,000 tagged photos, with haunting streams from “just another anamia insta” (that’s anorexia/bulimia Instagrammer) and another user who declares she “needs to be skinnier.” There are gaunt images of jutting collar and hipbones, as well as devastating tableaux like a photo of a Coke and candy with the caption “I’m such a mistake and I’m not strong. I hate me,” or a user’s screenshot from a calorie-counting diary app that declares, “If every day were like today, you’d weight 76.8 lbs in 5 weeks.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Sites like Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest are now grappling with the same issues that Facebook and Twitter and, back in the day, regular old blogs have for years. And unfortunately, they’re finding the challenge just as awkward and often ineffectual as their predecessors.

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The hope that sites have a moral obligation to their users to create an environment that is safe and healthy and nontoxic doesn’t always jibe with the practical reality of making it happen — not when the demand for “thinspiration” is so persistent, and the cultural obsession with weight so pervasive. We see it in the way that a single tweet from Miley Cyrus about not eating a Carl’s Jr.  and Lady Gaga hashtagging #PopSingersDontEat turn into major news stories and rumors of anorexia.

It’s the right of any site to determine its content – or at least try to. But as Denise Restauri in Forbes points out, all that happens when you merely sets up roadblocks is that a community gets clever about finding work-arounds and starts “house hunting” for new places of refuge. To really effect change, what communities need are dedicated and sensitive leaders who can work with members – talk to them and point them to healthy resources. And they need to create tools that cannot just flag content but respond to it. Note, for example, what happens when you Google “suicide.” Your first result is for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and the query “Need help?” Organizations like the National Eating Disorders Association need not only to be present on sites like Pinterest and Instagram, they need to show up right away when users are creating #proana or #thinspiration content.

The tragic truth is that a person who posts her self-loathing over drinking a Coke is not going to be helped by simply being blocked or forced to choose a more vague hashtag. Halfhearted attempts to cut her off from a community that cheers self-destruction aren’t enough. She needs more than rules to make her stop posting. She needs guidance out of the darkness. She needs real people who can help her stop hurting herself.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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