Beware of the dangerous fetishising of fitness on social media

First published in The Telegraph 14th October 2013

‘Thinspo’ or ‘thinspiration’ is an image or collection of images that show an extremely thin, usually female body, sometimes accompanied by a pleasant motivational message, variations of which include ‘stay strong, starve on’, ‘do you really want that cake?’, ‘keep calm and the hunger will pass’ and ‘stop stuffing your fat face’. Thinspiration is a reliable feature of any pro-ana blog (a site that promotes anorexia as a lifestyle choice rather than an illness) and is used to provide those suffering from eating disorders with goals to strive and pictorial representations of the ‘perfect body’ that they can purportedly achieve through starvation.
The images also work by instilling a sense of shame in the viewer for indulging in food. During my struggle with anorexia and bulimia, I would regularly visit pro-ana sites and I idolised Nicole Richie, Mary Kate Olsen and Kate Moss as my personal ‘thinspo’ heroines. I felt accountable to these sites with their demanding slogans, overwhelmed with guilt even at five and a half stone, the hair on my head coming out in handfuls. ‘Thinspo’ is made by sick people and keeps other sick people in the grip of their eating disorders.
Tumblr has already clamped down on the sharing of ‘thinspo’ images as part of a ban on blogs that promote self-harming behaviours, including eating disorders. And the photo-collecting site Pinterest duly followed suit. Instagram’s updated user guidelines state that accounts “encouraging or urging users to embrace anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders; or to cut, harm themselves, or commit suicide” will be disabled. The hashtags ‘thinspiration’, ‘proanorexia’ and ‘probulimia’ are no longer searchable.
So, ‘thinspo’ is bad and damaging and it promotes mental and physical illness. Social networking and picture sharing sites are recognising this. However, there’s a new hashtag trending in town. The craze on Instagram and Tumblr within the last year has been for blogs and accounts devoted to ‘fitspo’ or ‘fitspiration’.

Fit and healthy bodies in the real world come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. They are often more muscular than thin. The images found under the tag of ‘fitspo’ do not reflect this, they are virtually identical to ‘thinspo’ pictures, save for the addition of a set of weights or a sports bra. The same flat bellies, sharp hip bones and obvious thigh gaps are present, along with the captions that promise happiness, love and success just as soon as you look like the girl in the picture. The idea that there is one body ideal that all women should strive for, be it through restricting food, vomiting or compulsive exercise, is both unrealistic and causes women to feel devalued and not good enough.Similarly to ‘thinspiration’, ‘fitspiration’ encourages an obsession with diet, exercise and weight. It is about the external appearance of thinness rather than internal health. Its motivational value lies in urging the viewer to push themselves that little bit harder when exercising, something that is actually discouraged by professional trainers because it can cause injury and prevent trainees reaching their fitness goals.

The way ‘thinspo’ can so easily be rebranded and passed off as something ‘health conscious’ is unsettling. I contacted Instagram to discuss the current proliferation of ‘fitspo’ hashtags, but they declined to make any meaningful comments on record.

A popular Tumblr account that describes itself as ‘healthy fitspiration’ and ‘body positive’ is paradoxically filled with near-emaciated bodies and one of them is mine, which I submitted as a test. My body is permanently damaged by anorexia and I am medically advised against any exercise other than brisk walking. The idea that ‘fitspo’ images have anything to do with health or fitness is entirely spurious and the use of my picture is proof of this. Thin does not necessarily mean healthy and neither does it mean fit.

There is no meaningful difference between ‘fitspo’ and ‘thinspo’. Both terms glorify a body ideal that is unrealistic for the majority of women and is unlikely to be achieved merely through exercise. So please don’t be fooled by ‘fitspo’, it’s merely a sneaky rebranding of something inexplicably linked to illness, disordered eating and body dissatisfaction.

Why is bulimia seen as ‘more disgusting’ than anorexia?

First published in The Telegraph, 2nd September 2013

A few days ago it was widely reported that new research on a simulated “out of body experience” could be useful in the treatment of anorexia, because sufferers so often experience a disconnection between what they see and the actual shape of their bodies. My first thought was that it all sounded a bit science fiction, but I soon started to wonder why the article only mentioned anorexia, when bulimia sufferers are similarly beset with frightening body dysmorphia (an anxiety disorder which causes people to spend a lot of time worrying about their physical appearance). To me, this seems illustrative of a wider problem of silence and ignorance when it comes to the discussion of bulimia.
It is extremely difficult to find reliable figures on the number of people who have an eating disorder in this country, simply because data is collected only at the most serious end of the spectrum, when patients are so unwell that they require a hospital bed. Millions more cases go undiagnosed and there is no information regarding those who are currently waiting for treatment.

However, the charity B-eat suggests that 1.6 million people in the UK currently suffer from an eating disorder, and that 40 per cent of these are bulimic. This makes bulimia four times as common as anorexia and the remaining percentage includes those with EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) which covers patients who exhibit mixed symptoms of anorexia and bulimia. Why then, are we not talking more about bulimia?

The first reason is that we like to have tangible, physical evidence of an illness before we take it seriously, which is why unhelpful attitudes still exist around mental health issues including depression. Anorexia manifests itself in evident weight-loss while bulimia sufferers can often be at a normal weight. The idea that if you’re not unhealthily thin, you can’t possibly have an eating disorder is hopelessly outdated but still widespread.

Kate, a 22 year-old make-up artist, describes her bulimia as something that the people around her found it “easy to close the door on and pretend wasn’t happening” because the physical symptoms were not always immediate. However, the damage that bulimia does is very real and side effects include anaemia, swollen cheeks, depression, dizziness, fatigue, dry skin, abrasions on knuckles, tearing of the oesophagus, blood in vomit, ulcers, low blood pressure, irregular heartbeat and electrolyte imbalance.

There is a greater stigma undeservedly attached to bulimia due to its characterisation by a cycle of bingeing and purging. Purging does not only refer to vomiting to compensate for a binge but includes the abuse of laxatives, compulsive exercising and fasting. I spent seven years struggling with an eating disorder and was diagnosed with EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) because while at low weight that was part of the ‘anorexic range’, I would make myself sick after eating.

The anorexic part of my illness was treated by some friends as praiseworthy and I was repeatedly given positive reinforcement in the form of comments like “oh wow you’re so skinny” and “you’re so lucky, you can wear anything you want”. However, when the impulse to eat (and then binge) became too strong and bulimic behaviours began to surface, the negative and unkind responses were overwhelming. What I was doing was ‘disgusting’ and ‘wasteful’ and ‘selfish’. The iron-willed control and denial of anorexia was fine, but bulimia was seen as dirty and shameful, to be hidden at all costs.There is an obvious discrepancy between the number of people needing treatment and the services available, and appointments with specialist clinics can regularly take more than six months to materialize. GPs often do not have the specialist knowledge required to be helpful to those with eating disorders and during my undergraduate year at university I was told by a GP that all I really needed to do was “eat more baked potatoes”.

Kate is similarly candid and disappointed about her experience of healthcare professionals not taking the illness seriously. She says: “I was diagnosed with bi polar, when really if they had taken the time to discuss the bulimia with me they would have found that it was the cause, not a symptom of my mental health issues.”

The sense of shame felt by bulimics often prevents them from seeking treatment and this is completely unacceptable. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and misconceptions, social stigma and genuine lack of coordination on the part of health services must be recognised and challenged. When it comes to bulimia, we need to start talking because it is through honest discussion that social understanding and more meaningful support from family and friends is generated.

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