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Mental Health

Thinspo, Fitspo & Fat Pride: The New Controversial Body Image Movements You Need to Know About

February 22 to 28 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. We’ll be sharing information about this important issue throughout the week, from what to do if you or a friend is suffering from an eating disorder to how to love your body just the way it is! Be sure to check out all of our content here.

“Allow me to introduce myself…Anorexia Nervosa is my full name, but you may call me Ana. Hopefully we can become great partners.” So begins the notorious “Letter from Ana” a letter from the personified Ana that graces many sites on body image and eating disorders—those that encourage them and condemn them alike. The origins of the “pro-ana” movement are a subject of debate among its fans and critics, some claiming that the “ana” in pro-ana does not refer to anorexia at all. But regardless of the fine print, attitudes that border on favoring eating disorder development have continued to gain traction among young people, especially women.

Let’s hit pause: to understand the culture, you have to understand the language. Listed below are some of the basic terms that permeate the continuing online discussion about body image.

  • CW — Current weight; typically recorded by blog users to track and share their weight loss.
  • ED — Eating disorder.
  • Fat acceptance — Also called “fat pride” and “fat liberation”; a movement to change attitudes toward fat people.
  • Fitspiration — A combination of the words “fit” and “inspiration.” Consists of images, videos and/or quotes concerning physical activity and fitness. “Fitspo” for short.
  • Manorexia — Anorexia as it pertains to males.
  • Pro-ana — The promotion of anorexia as a lifestyle choice as opposed to a disorder.
  • Pro-mia — The promotion of bulimia as a lifestyle choice as opposed to a disorder.
  • SW — Starting weight.
  • Thigh gap — The gap between someone’s thighs. Photos of thigh gaps and their presence are often used as a rough indicator of weight loss: the larger the gap, the more apparent the weight loss.
  • Thinspiration — A combination of the words “thin” and “inspiration.” Consists of images, videos and/or quotes concerning a slender body image. “Thinspo” for short.
  • UGW — Ultimate goal weight.

The Rise of Thinspiration

Body weight has been a topic of discussion since people discovered food (aka the beginning of human existence), so it’s no surprise the topic needs its own glossary. But here’s the plot twist—by the time our generation hit its tween years, the Information Age had taken our fascination with body image online. While tips for bulking up and trimming down pervade the Internet shamelessly, certain sites and blogs take weight-conscious culture to the extreme. Flip open your laptop and within milliseconds of a Google search, you’ll find the web presence that self-identifies as pro-ana, promoting will power at the dinner table. On the other end of the spectrum are movements like “fat pride” and the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. And scattered in between are ambiguous sites, from those that promote EDs to others like the now-dormant blog Medusa, which focused on “alternative thinspiration”—alarming images of underweight individuals—to discourage viewers from starving themselves.

“Many health professionals take a negative viewpoint on [thinspiration and fat pride] movements,” says Dr. Jennifer Wider, MD, author of The Doctor’s Complete College Girls’ Health Guide and medical advisor to Cosmopolitan. “They tend to glorify and promote a lifestyle that isn’t necessarily healthy.”

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. We all sat through health class during the awkward years of junior high, and outside the classroom ED awareness is a powerful movement on and offline. So why do sites that encourage EDs thrive?

One possible answer is the premise of social media in the first place—a sense of belonging and a common mission. Fans enter the world of protruding hipbones and thigh gaps to share their goals and get support for weight loss. “I personally think a sense of community is important for all women, no matter what their body type is,” says Dr. Wider. “But the community can only be healthy for an individual if it supports healthy lifestyle choices which include good, solid nutrition and dietary choices.”
Problems arise when the meanings of “healthy” and “good” are thrown into question by the wide variety of interpretations. The first line heading the blog Starving for Perfection describes itself as “a pro-ana blog for anorexic girls to support one another on our journey to being thin.” Confessions, tips, photos and even food logs grace its pages, the anonymous blogger who runs it sharing such posts as the following:

Breakfast: 1 bowl of kix with skim milk
Dinner: Iceburg lettuce (I guess I can call this a salad, even though there was nothing else on there? haha) & two bites of corn
Snack: Pineapple Greek Yogurt
+ coffeeeee & diet coke all day of course!

A single-ingredient salad? You don’t eat Plain Jane, light-as-a-feather meals to satisfy your taste buds or your appetite, so there must be other underlying motives at play. Some advocates of thinspiration or fat pride are motivated by deep-seated anxieties stemming from familial or situational influences, for example. Taylor, a senior at Wellesley College, points to a family history of both obesity and eating issues that push her views back and forth: “I can’t help but have a bit of an unhealthy relationship with weight thoughts, because I have a fear of obesity but also a fear of getting an eating disorder,” she shares, referring to the fact that her family includes overweight and underweight members. “My mom once got down to 94 pounds without realizing it.”

In Defense of Thinspo

Advocates of thinness stand in defense of their personal aspirations and public thinspiration alike, stressing that not all blogs in support of skinniness are too extreme. One example is Skinny Gurl of Skinny Gossip, the self-labeled “pro-skinny” blog that received media attention nationwide for blasting Kate Upton earlier this summer. “It’s simple,” says Skinny Gurl of the pro-skinny mindset in an exclusive HC interview, describing a typical subscriber as “someone who’d prefer to be skinny rather than average weight. For example, a lot of the members of our community—especially the VIPs—work in the fashion or entertainment industry as models or actresses, and being skinny is literally a job requirement [for them].”

Critics may roll their eyes and lambast attitudes like Skinny Gurl’s as pro-anorexia in disguise. But she distinguishes the desire for a thin figure from anorexia, a clinically diagnosable eating disorder. Skinny Gurl states that in some cases, attaining a thin figure is an accomplishment that demonstrates an admirable work ethic: “Staying in shape takes discipline and focus, especially when you aren’t born with perfect genetics. I admire those who work hard to stay thin. I would hope that my audience can learn that working hard for your body is nothing to be ashamed of.”

And if you’re among those who don’t “work hard to stay thin”? “Let’s be honest: anyone who is overweight is overweight because of the choices they make every day,” says Skinny Gurl. “Yes, it’s a lot harder for some, but everyone can be in shape if they really want to be.”

Insight From Prior Thinspo Followers

Skinny Gurl tells it to you straight. Whether or not you agree with her, some of those who once perused pro-skinny-like blogs look back on it with regret. “I used to struggle a bit with eating and body image,” shares Hannah, a sophomore at NYU. “Looking at thinspo and reading pro-ana blogs certainly didn’t help me stay healthy back then and I wish it hadn’t been so accessible or easy to find.”

Hannah credits thinspo for fostering her eating habits and subsequent threats to her health: “I could see the short-term effects [of dieting], like feeling cold all the time and hair loss. Once I visited a doctor, she spelled out exactly how dangerous behavior was in the long term. I was putting myself at risk for osteoporosis, certain forms of cancer, and infertility. That scared me enough into wanting to change my eating habits to be healthier.”

Recovery from unhealthy eating habits takes more than physical change, though. “I’m not going to lie—I was completely freaked out at first,” says Hannah of returning to a healthy weight. “I was completely shocked the first time I went into Zara and couldn’t fit into a single pair of jeans.” At first, says Hannah, this unpleasant surprise pushed her to the opposite extreme—thoughts like, “If I’m going to be fat, I might as well embrace it—bring on the croissants”—but eventually she found peace in a middle ground. “After a while, I started focusing on making healthy choices again,” she shares. “Adjusting to a new mindset was the biggest help for me: once I acknowledged that yes, I’m curvy, and yes, maybe I’d like to look differently sometimes, it was a lot easier to embrace the way I look and enjoy it.”

Taylor shares a similar story. “While some blogs I came across clearly stated they were pro-ana or pro-mia and that it wasn’t a disease but a lifestyle choice, others were clearly spouting pro-ED values, while claiming not to promote or encourage eating disorders or self-harming behaviors,” she says. “At one point I started getting sucked in, trying to water fast [consume water only] or eat only fruits and veggies, counting all my calories, chewing gum and drinking water rather than eating when I was hungry.” Once Taylor began to think she was falling victim to “pro-ED” influences, she removed herself from that online community.
The Censorship of Thinspo

Even large corporations have taken measures to show official disapproval of anything resembling the pro-ana movement. Social media sites like Instagram, Tumblr and Pinterest have categorized pro-ana pictures as self-harm promotion and have taken measures to eliminate their presence.

Hold up. Private companies may have the right to dictate their own policies, but is blog and Internet regulation even legal? Some consider efforts to censor thinspiration an infringement of freedom of speech and press. “I think it’s ridiculous,” says Skinny Gurl of Pinterest’s ban on thinspiration. “It’s like the thought police. How can you ban an idea?”

Despite the verbal artillery that shelled her post on Kate Upton, Skinny Gurl maintains that her blog serves an important purpose. “[Skinny Gossip] has evolved into a place to go for people who felt like being pro-skinny was fringe and unwelcome in Western pro-consumption society,” says Skinny Gurl. “Everything is super-sized these days—people, portions, etc.—and if you want to be thin (not sick thin, just thin), you are frowned upon. You can’t even say it out loud without fear of retribution, argument, alienation.” This is the function of Skinny Gossip—to serve as “a big community of people who face these same issues and share tips and support on staying skinny while also staying healthy.”

Don’t agree? Skinny Gurl isn’t surprised: “This is the point we get so much criticism on, and I’m sorry, but it’s just ignorance. We have no desire to help anyone harm themselves—quite the opposite. “

Inspiration’s Internal Tension: Fit vs. Thin

Many former fans of thinspiration have converted to “fitspiration,” instead focusing on a purportedly healthier lifestyle focused on exercise and body strength. “On the one hand, I definitely find thin beautiful, like most of our society does,” admits Taylor. “I have looked at and posted thinspo. I later realized some of what I was posting was unhealthy and started posting fistpo instead: fit, athletic pictures of girls rather than rail thin pictures of girls with prominent hip bones, collarbones and thigh gaps. My focus became more about exercise to be strong rather than to burn calories, and healthy eating rather than dropping weight quickly.”

Fitspiration may seem like a friendly middle ground, but not everyone is convinced—in fact, the creation of fitspiration as an alternative to thinspiration has created tension between the fans of each. Fit women may be considered more attractive than others, but fashion seems to have no room for six-pack abs and rippling biceps, and neither does thinspiration. “The fashion industry definitely does differ [from other industries] in its attitudes about appearances,” says Skinny Gurl. “Many of the top people in fashion look down on the overweight body and—I’m not saying it’s right—see it as a bit slovenly and ‘common.’ Fashion, especially high fashion, strives to be rare, ethereal, and almost unattainable.”

“And let’s be honest,” she adds, “great clothes look better on thin people. People… talk about how normal people should be in ads, on runways, etc. But no one in fashion really wants their stuff to be seen as normal—normal doesn’t sell.”

Whether you’re nodding in agreement or fuming with anger, Skinny Gurl isn’t the first to describe the fashion industry that way. Its reputation has been colored by such incidents as Kate Moss’s infamous declaration that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”.

On the other hand, the fashion world has also produced opponents of that very attitude—even among those who sport a size zero. The late French model Isabelle Caro spent the last years of her unfortunately short life promoting eating disorder awareness and the dangers of taking the thin-figure ideal to the extreme.
Fat Acceptance: a Healthy Reaction or a Plus-Size Problem?

But the world of fashion isn’t limited to rail-thin models, as shown by the emerging popularity of plus size models and clothing options. The blogger TessMunster, a plus-size model who has been featured on billboards and several media outlets, states her mission “to empower women of all shapes and sizes” but, perhaps more assertively, also “plans to change the way you think about curvy women.”

What we Gen X and Y-ers often forget is that this support of larger figures isn’t a novelty at all. Just decades ago, advertisements dazzled frustrated female consumers with attractive prospects of weight gain. Vintage ads pitch weight-gaining methods that would make members of today’s pro-ana or pro-skinny movements cringe, showing curvy women aside speech bubbles that declare, “Men wouldn’t look at me when I was skinny!” and implying that excessive thinness was the truly undesirable body shape.

Anna Binkovitz, a junior at Macalester College, decided to advance the notion that larger body shapes shouldn’t be shunned after coming across anti-fat pride blog posts she found offensive. In response, she founded her own blog, Shameless. “I’m hoping to provide an alternative to thinspiration—healthspiration,” she says. “I want this blog to inspire people of all ages, but especially young people, to reassess their views on size and weight.” Despite admitting to struggles with body image and self-esteem, Binkovitz was so bold as to feature herself in a bikini in one of her first posts for Shameless. She hopes this is only the first step to showcasing a variety of people and shapes. In her view, “people should really inhabit their bodies as they are, and try and stay in tune with what they physically need to feel healthy, rather than trying to look like a certain other person or hit a goal size. The most important relationship in your life shouldn’t be with a scale or a television commercial, but with your own skin and bone and muscle and fat.” Anna’s motto for Shameless is a quote from the twentieth century French philosopher Albert Camus, “I know of one duty, and that is to love,” no matter the size or shape of the viewer.

Anna’s views are arguably moderate, but movements just as extreme as pro-ana exist on the opposite end of the spectrum as well, like “fat acceptance.” But what about the virtually undisputed negative health effects of excessive weight? Dr. Wider says that those who need to lose weight should seek a support system, despite the fact that extreme weight loss sites can be psychologically harmful. “Oftentimes, a woman with unhealthy weight could use some outside help or intervention to get on track in maintaining a healthy weight,” she says, stressing that a “healthy mind equals a healthy body for so many women.”

So what about you—who can you trust? Each side of the body image debate vies for the loudest voice and each has its set of tips and rules and quotes to inspire, but for anyone who is looking for the best way to control her weight, Dr. Wider advises not to “get caught up in a trend.” She encourages them instead “to maintain a healthy lifestyle the best you can which includes eating well, three balanced meals, snacking on healthy choices and getting regular exercise.” And don’t forget to treat yourself well. In the words of a more talented writer, “Everything in moderation, including moderation”—now there’s a Wilde thought.

What’s your take on the thinspiration versus fitspiration debate? Is pro-ana a dangerous pursuit or a lifestyle choice? Can fat acceptance be a positive influence on Western society? 

Think you might be suffering from an eating disorder? The National Eating Disorders Association has a free and confidential screening to help you determine next steps. If you’re looking for more information, be sure to call the NEDA helpline. Looking for ways to help spread the word? Find out how you can get involved on your campus.

Sarah Kismet is a member of the class of 2014 at Kenyon College, a surreal little place that compensates for its geographical solitude with magic, smiles, and bands you’ve never heard of. There, she edits the Kenyon Observer and tutors Economics. Sarah hails from New Albany, Ohio but is of Syrian origin. When she’s not obsessively writing to-do lists or hustling to complete them, she can be found running at the athletic center, reducing the worldwide candy population, asserting her opinions, or giggling uncontrollably.
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