Is blocking pro-ED content the right way to solve eating disorders?
Warning: This post deals with eating disorder and self-harm content and is potentially triggering.
Active Promotion of Self-Harm. Don’t post content that actively promotes or glorifies self-injury or self-harm. This includes content that urges or encourages readers to cut or mutilate themselves; embrace anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders; or commit suicide rather than, e.g., seek counseling or treatment for depression or other disorders. Online dialogue about these acts and conditions is incredibly important; this prohibition is intended to reach only those blogs that cross the line into active promotion or glorification. For example, joking that you need to starve yourself after Thanksgiving or that you wanted to kill yourself after a humiliating date is fine, but recommending techniques for self-starvation or self-mutilation is not.
(The remainder of this post focuses on eating disorder content, because it’s what I know the most about. I’d love to hear more from people familiar with self-harm communities.)
Pro-ED content has existed on the internet for many years, and it has been studied by many researchers. It is primarily created and consumed by girls and young women, ages 13-25. There is evidence that the viewing of pro-ED websites (pro-ana, anorexia, and pro-mia, bulimia) produces negative effects in college-age women — lower self-esteem and perception of oneself as “heavier” (Bardone-Cone & Cass, 2007). But pro-ED websites have been sensationalized in the media as cults that encourage young women to kill themselves, even ending up as the case-of-the-week on Boston Legal.
At the same time, the cultural pressure on young women to conform to normative body types is intense. In Am I Thin Enough Yet? The Cult of Thinness and the Commercialization of Identity, feminist sociologist Sharlene Hess Biber looks at the complex interactions between media, schools, peers, family, and the health and fitness industry that systemically undermine young women’s self confidence, send the message that appearance is more important than intelligence or personality, and emphasize the importance of thinness overall. Often, the messages found on pro-ana or pro-mia sites– such as “nothing tastes as good as thin feels”, attributed to Kate Moss but actually a Weight Watchers slogan that has been around for decades– are extraordinarily similar to those found in magazines like Self and Women’s Health, or on websites like My Fitness Pal or Sparkpeople that promote weight loss in a “healthy” way. These media emphasize different weight loss techniques, but the message is the same: it is very important to be thin and conform to an attractive, normative body ideal.
Pro-ED websites are a female subculture, with their own vocabulary, customs, and norms. Moreover, the women who frequent these sites are well aware that their practices are stigmatized. In general, women with eating disorders go to great lengths to hide them from friends and families. This is primarily for two reasons: one, they want to keep losing weight and are worried that they may be forced into treatment, and two, they are afraid of being ridiculed or called out by others. The anonymous or pseudonymous nature of pro-ED sites allows these participants an outlet for their social isolation, and (to a certain extent) emotional support from others going through the same experiences that they are.
Jeannine Gailey, a sociologist of deviance, wrote a paper on pro-ED websites using ethnographic methods. She concludes:
They need a place where they can share their stories and fears with others who are similarly minded and have had comparable experiences. They, as Dias put it [another ethnographic researcher of pro-ana sites, paper here], are seeking a sanctuary. The internet provides the women with both a sanctuary and a medium in which to express the sensations and intense emotions they experience as they struggle to maintain control over their bodies and lives…. The women’s narratives I explored indicate that they participate in the central features of edgework, namely pushing oneself to the edge, testing the limits of both their bodies and minds, exercising particular skills that require ‘innate talent’ and mental toughness, and feelings of self-actualization or omnipotence.
Gailey frames EDs as “edgework,” a concept from criminology/deviance that describes practices of voluntary risk-taking, like skydiving, rock climbing, ‘extreme sports’, stock-trading, unprotected sex, and illegal graffiti. The skills Gailey describes as part of edgework are similar to those emphasized by other body-related extreme communities, such as those devoted to bodybuilding, crossfit, veganism, and paleo dieting. On such communities, members swap tips, ask for support, show progress, share information and share vocabularies and normative practices.
Obviously, Tumblr isn’t focusing on any of these communities. I’m not arguing that eating disorders aren’t dangerous, or even that they’re potentially empowering. They are not. But the focus on young women’s online practice as deviant, pathological, and quasi-illegal is in line with a long history. Young women and their bodies are often the locus of control of social panics, from teen pregnancies to virginity to obesity to dressing “slutty”.
More importantly, Tumblr banning this content won’t do anything to make it go away. It does take Tumblr off the hook, but even the quickest search for self-harm or thinspo (serious trigger warning) finds thousands of posts, many heartbreaking in their raw honesty. One Tumblr writes:
if tumblr blocks all our blogs then things will be worse. off than they were before, we’ll feel alone again, outcasts! Who can we share our problems with if our blogs have been taken off us? We share our deepest and most darkest secrets on here and if our blogs are taken where are we supposed to put our feelings? They will build up inside of us and things will get worse and worse. Well done tumblr you bunch of arseholes, you’re going to make things worse.
Pragmatically, many of the thinspo content has simply migrated to Pinterest. Others have password-protected their blogs and spread the password to people in the community.
Eating disorder prevention needs to be structural as well as medical. Realistically, eating disorders aren’t going anywhere as long as we have a complex set of mediated images and discursive tropes that pin the importance of young women on their bodies. These issues exist on a continuum that includes everything from Shape magazine and The Biggest Loser to well-meaning anti-childhood obesity initiatives. Young women participating in pro-ED communities are acting upon messages they get from many other places in their lives. While there is no agreed-upon way of dealing with pro-ED communities– and it’s great that Tumblr is going to implement PSA-type ads that appear on searches for these terms– there are more productive interventions that can be made. We must understand the reasons these young women are in such pain and, more importantly, be willing to engage with these communities, rather than painting them as horrific or abhorrent.