From Stigmatized to Glamorized: Eating Disorders in Social Media

Trigger warning: If you are upset/triggered by mentions of anorexia or other eating disorders, this story is not for you. Please proceed with caution.


The search result after looking up collarbones on Pinterest. Credit: Genevieve Wynot

A few weeks ago, I entered the word “collarbones” into Pinterest’s search bar in hopes of finding a reference photo for something I was drawing. However, this seemingly innocuous search brought me to a page that stated, “If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating, help and resources are available.” One may wonder how an image of collarbones is related to eating disorders. After all, the connection between the two isn’t exactly intuitive. But to anyone who has been a part of the “pro-anorexia,” or anorexia supportive side of Tumblr, Twitter, or any other social media platform, the connection is clear. 

For those who are not acquainted with the pro-eating disorder side of the internet, in the early 2010s, Tumblr was one of, if not the most, popular social media platforms. It had millions of users and hundreds upon hundreds of sub-communities. There was the film side of Tumblr, which provided people who had watched the same shows and movies with a space to talk about them. There was the hipster side of Tumblr, which consisted mostly of cringe-inducing poetry and kindergarten teacher-esque outfit inspiration. There was the music side, which was dedicated to discussing various bands and music artists. And then there was the pro-anorexia side of Tumblr, which encouraged and fueled eating disorders. 

The content produced by the pro-ana (short for pro-anorexia) side of Tumblr included tips on how to starve oneself, how to avoid getting found out by parents or doctors, and “thinspo.” Thinspo (short for thinspiration) included pictures, mostly of young women and teenage girls, who were unhealthily skinny. These photos, as well as the girls in them, were praised highly and used to inspire others to starve themselves. One standard of beauty promoted by pro-ana communities was having prominent collarbones. It may seem strange that collarbones could be used to promote eating disorders, but people were obsessed with looking emaciated. Protruding bones were the beauty standard. 

Eventually, Tumblr did place much stricter regulations on its platform in regards to eating disorders. It’s much harder to post or spread any sort of blatantly pro-eating disorder content today than it was in 2012. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it has disappeared completely. It’s not as prevalent, but people still find creative ways around the restrictions. Unfortunately, pro-eating disorder content seems to have become an indelible part of Tumblr. 

Tumblr isn’t as popular today as it was in the 2010s. Other social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, have far surpassed it in popularity. These platforms, which were developed much later than Tumblr, were lucky in that they were developed enough to censor content that promotes eating disorders. However, that does not mean that these social media platforms have eradicated pro-eating disorder content completely. TikTok especially, is guilty of hosting content that straddles the line between healthy lifestyle and pro-eating disorder. 

For example, there are a seemingly endless amount of videos dedicated to weight loss. People show what they eat in a day, how much they exercise, and before and after pictures of their bodies. Some of the videos could be helpful for someone trying to lose weight in a healthy way, but others lead the viewer to a very different interpretation. One video that was recommended to me by TikTok’s algorithm was a girl sharing what she ate daily. It seemed normal and innocent enough, until she revealed that her diet consisted almost entirely of ice water.

Because this type of content is not blatantly pro-eating disorder, it usually flies under the radar. But even content completely unrelated to weight loss or food can fuel eating disorders. There is really only one standard of beauty promoted on TikTok, and that standard is skinny. People who aren’t thin or don’t look like they live at the gym will inevitably become insecure when they never see their body type in any of the content they consume. It’s typical for people to go viral on TikTok simply for being pretty and skinny. That isn’t their fault, of course, but when a person feels as though they will never be the beauty standard, it’s extremely disheartening. 

Maybe the finger of blame should be directed toward TikTok’s addictive algorithm. Maybe it should be directed towards the first person who posted pro-ana content on the internet. Maybe it should be pointed towards society, for having such strict beauty standards. There’s really no concrete way to know whose fault it is that pro-eating disorder content is still circulating the internet. 

At this point in time, it seems impossible to eradicate pro-eating disorder content completely. No matter how many restrictions social media platforms place or how many precautions they take to ensure that that type of content is not posted on their sites, people seem to find a way around it. “Thinspo,” for example, is a banned search on Pinterest. If one were to type in “th!nsp00” however, they will get results. It’s an uphill battle made all the harder by the fact that many just don’t want the internet to get rid of pro-eating disorder content. It is impossible to help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves, so until either eating disorders or the internet go extinct, it seems that pro-eating disorder content will find a way to infiltrate all corners.