Pinterest or Thinterest?

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Sarah Murphy - NWHN Intern
Mon, April 30, 2012


"Thinspiration" content on social media websites, or "thinspo" for short, has recently become a hot topic for discussion in the news as well as the blogosphere. Thinspiration is exactly what it sounds like: material aimed at inspiring one to lose weight and become unhealthfully thin. It can take on many forms, most including motivational messages, dieting articles, and images of women who are extremely thin to view as role models.

As someone who has dedicated a large amount of her time to body activism and raising awareness about eating disorders, I am definitely happy to see that this disturbing use of social media is getting some exposure. Jezebel posted a great awareness-raising article that led Pinterest to take action by changing its terms and conditions to help prevent self-harm. Meanwhile, The Huffington Post published a very thorough exploration of pro-anorexia blogs and thinspo content, complete with its own glossary of "pro-ana" Tumblr terms.

But I can't help but notice that something is a little off about the way these and many other media outlets describe thinspo and those who use it. Jezebel limits its discussion to women who are "suffering from an eating disorder or teetering on the brink of an eating disorder," while The Huffington Post calls thinspo an "underground phenomenon" happening among a "hidden community" of mostly teenage girls. Unfortunately, this is where they are wrong. The use of thinspo in social media is not limited to women who meet or come close to meeting criteria for clinical diagnosis of an eating disorder. Thinspo is used by all ages and types of women, regardless whether or not they are actually engaging in disordered eating behaviors.

How do I know this? Because I'm on the internet, too. I myself have a Pinterest account and have actually been avoiding the website lately because of the overwhelming number of negative, triggering images I am inundated with at every login. For those of you who haven’t jumped on the Pinterest bandwagon just yet, just imagine an online version of all those collages you made out of fashion magazine clippings when you were 14. As defined by (the most legitimate source of information next to Wikipedia, of course), Pinterest is "a social networking site that allows you to figuratively 'pin' pictures of your likes/interests in a simple, organized fashion." You can pin interesting images and articles that you find on the internet to your online pinboards (similar to say, bookmarking a page) and also see what all of the people you follow are pinning.

The scary thing is that I don't follow any pro-ana users or boards designated as thinspo – I follow women that one might consider "normal," who I know in the real, non-internet world. I am close to the women I follow in varying degrees, having gone to high school or college with many, shared meals and conversation with some, and held intimate friendships with others. I do realize that you can't go around making assumptions about whether or not a person has an eating disorder based on their weight or what they eat, but I think I can make the assumption, at least statistically speaking, that the huge numbers of women who post thinspo-related content on Pinterest don't all have a full-blown eating disorder. I emphasize this because it is just another example of how weight loss, idealization of thinness, and body hatred are what many women have come to be consider just another "normal" facet of womanhood.

I wanted to investigate thinspiration on Pinterest without taking the obvious route of logging in and simply typing "thinspo" into the search bar. Instead, I took on the arduous and depressing task of combing through the pins and pinboards of the women I follow personally on Pinterest.

Some key findings:

  • The women I follow on Pinterest have several pin boards with similar themes – wedding ideas, recipes, interior design, etc. The majority of these women also have a board devoted to thinspiration, although they are typically not obvious about it. Most thinspiration boards that I came across hid behind seemingly innocuous titles like "Inspiration for Summer," "If Only," or simply "Fitness." Note: I am using my own discretion here to determine what constitutes thinspo. Call me crazy, but I don't consider an article outlining a 1000-calorie daily diet to be a "fitness" article.
  • The overarching idea that the only obstacle that is standing in the way of the unrealistic, unattainably emaciated frame that these women desire is a little willpower and self-discipline. The women I follow seem to truly believe that it’s entirely their own fault that they don't meet these impossible beauty standards. It seems disturbingly popular to post supposedly motivational images of thin women with overlaid text ensuring that you will hate yourself enough to lose a few pounds. Messages like "Suck it up and someday you won't have to suck it in," "Once you control your mind, you can control your body," and “What you eat in private, you wear in public" are commonplace in the world of Pinterest thinspo.
  • The majority of the women I follow on Pinterest are around my age (22) or older. None are teenagers and a few are over 30. Unfortunately, I didn't see a significant difference in the amount of thinspo content with age.

Besides a more accurate description of the women who look at and post thinspiration on social media websites, there needs to be a more productive discussion about women's fascination with this kind of internet content. I've read a lot of articles lately that sensationalize this "dangerous and horrifying new trend" with a tone of disbelief and outrage, but few that actually address or offer solutions to the overarching normalization of body dissatisfaction for women in our society. We can all sit here and gawk at the disturbing images of emaciated women and messages of self-punishment and pretend as if it is only "crazy teenage girls" who fall prey to thinspiration, or we can come to terms with the fact that thin idealization has become a problem for women of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities. A perspective that I find refreshing in the midst of our thin-obsessed society is the Health at Every Size (HAES) philosophy.

Want to make a difference by doing something small? Be a role model in your own social media network today by creating a body-positive board on your Pinterest site. If you need a little inspiration, try checking out some of the blogs and websites in the HAES community or simply re-pin from a body-positive Pinterest board that already exists. By doing this, you can demonstrate firsthand that hating your body does not have to be an integral part of being a woman.

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Pinterest or Thinterest? | National Women's Health Network

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Great article!

This is a great article exposing a phenomenon in which, as you say, a VERY large number of women of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities participate. The exposé articles on Jezebel and Huff Post are a good start, but this type of idealization of thinness is as common among women as reading fashion magazines (which also perpetuate dangerous ideals). I think a great way for the feminist community to combat this on an individual level (in addition to the great ideas you had) is to stop handing out "you look so thin!" and "wow you lost weight!" type comments as compliments, but instead to include body positive comments in every day life. "Your body is gorgeous" "You are beautiful" "I love your shape" etc are much less damaging (albeit still somewhat flawed) ways to flatter.

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