OPINION: Social media plays a dangerous role in the development of eating disorders


Bella Watson

“Young people on the internet are inducing eating disorders in themselves, which then hurdles them into a terrifying mental illness.” photo courtesy of Pexels.

Trigger Warning: Eating disorders, mention of suicide

During the mid 2000s, American media became obsessed with girls who were alarmingly thin. This trend mirrored the “heroin chic” aesthetic of the 1990s, but with the addition of the internet, the fad spread like wildfire. Photos of malnourished female bodies were adorned with words like “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” or “skip dinner and wake up thinner.”

These images gained huge popularity on the website Tumblr, which is a blogging platform that allows users to post updates or text, short clips and photos. Hashtags such as pro-ana, thinspo and skinny are used to unite users, who then use the site to encourage one another to participate in disordered eating.

As the 2000s carried on, this trend lost its popularity. Much like fashion, the media’s ideal body standard for women goes in and out of style, and the 2010s brought the rise of a new unattainable. The new trend was to have curves, deriving inspiration from celebrities like the Kardashians.

Perhaps it was ignorance, or the comfort in knowing that the latest unachievable standard for women at least promoted healthier behaviors than the one before it, but I believed that the days of pro-ana popularity were gone. While I assumed there was still a dark portion of the internet dedicated to the glorification of life-threatening diseases, most major platforms had banned hashtags associated with the trend, and the fad had died down.

Unfortunately, those websites have made their way back into mainstream media and into the minds of middle and high school-aged students. Newer social media platforms like TikTok and Twitter have become the latest safe space for these dangerous communities.

Many on the sites argue that their movement is a form of new-age feminism that allows thin women to feel confident and sexy in their bodies, but this couldn’t be further from the message they present. These websites and online groups post encouragement for other users that reminds them not to eat, gives them tips on how to self-induce vomiting — also known as purging — and how to help ease the side effects of self-starvation. Other posts include “staple” pro-ana propaganda, such as the saying, “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” a quote I have seen plastered across numerous websites.

These websites pose serious threats. Anorexia is currently considered the deadliest mental illness due to its one in five suicide rate and itsphysical effects. A majority of people who suffer from this deadly disease inherited it through genetics or as learned behavior from their environment.

Pro-ana websites and online groups, however, expose people who otherwise would not have been susceptible to the disease. Young people on the internet are inducing eating disorders in themselves, which then hurdles them into a terrifying mental illness. Some of these sites and internet groups have begun to go as far as having in person meet-ups to “hold each other accountable” for their weight.

Many platforms, such as Pinterest and Instagram, have banned all language that is associated with pro-ana activity. Activists are working to have the same done across all social media platforms. As of now, there is little we can do other than report these pages as we come across them.

If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, there are resources available to help you.

National Eating Disorders Association Helpline: 1-800-931-2237