Illumination 04 – Tommy Stewart

Writer and bassist Tommy Stewart gives a searingly honest interview about his mental health struggles and creative processes.

‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by Tommy Stewart, as told to Harriet Williamson.

Photo credit: Jake Lewis

Professionally, I’m a ‘journalist’ who works for the BBC. I use the term journalist vaguely because it’s difficult to define what being a journalist actually is in 2017, particularly if you’re working for a huge global news corporation, as I do. I’m fortunate enough to do a job I’ve grafted for and desired since I was about 15, and I’m also lucky in the fact that that role requires enough stimulation to keep me creatively ticking over on a daily basis.

However, on a personal level, I write. I think that’s the only thing I’ve ever been 100% confident in myself that I’m good at, and sometimes it’s my crutch, my most useful coping mechanism when it comes to not completely losing the fucking plot, and surviving. I’ve had things published in zines and online publications, but to be honest, at the moment, I write for myself and my own mental well-being.

However cliché this sounds, it’s not a hobby or a casual interest, it’s just instinctive and imperative to how I function, and it’s been the case since I was in primary school. I sound like fucking Hannah from Girls, but I guess writing is the root of my creative intuition.

I do suffer from fairly severe mental health problems. I was a regular sufferer of sleep paralysis as a child, which at the time I was convinced was a demon who’d took an inconveniently permanent residence within my room. When I was 19, I had my first panic attack on a flight, which triggered anxiety and panic attacks which I’ve suffered from regularly ever-since. After countless therapists, I was told this was due to PTSD, as in I suffer flashbacks and associative hallucinations.

At 27, it’s a fucking pain the arse to be having Fear and Loathing-esc imagery inhabiting your perceptive view when you’re sat at your desk at work. I also suffer from manic depression, and have self-harmed as a result of this. I live with that dog every day, but it’s only the past couple of years I’ve been completely open and unashamed about it, amongst friends, family and colleagues. It’s a relief that I can be self-deprecating and take the piss out of myself about it from time to time.

I’ve been through more therapists than I would dare to bore you with, and have also been on 20mg per day of the anti-depressant Citalopram for the past three years. In terms of staying well mentally via less scientifically conventional methods, probably the most basic and patronising piece of advice that the doctors always give you before throwing random prescriptions at you as you keep knocking on their door, is physical exercise.

I ignored it and had self-destructive disdain for my body for years, but since I’ve started playing football again regularly and walking back from work, I’ve felt a lot better in myself generally. As well as the initial drug-dose adrenaline it gives you for a day or two after which for an addictive class A thrill-seeker, is a great bonus both financially and mentally (yay I don’t need to buy drugs tonight).

It all sounds dead fucking obvious, but it isn’t, because people don’t talk about shit. Since I ‘came out’ about my illness via a Facebook status, I’ve found it a lot easier to talk about it and relate to people with similar conditions. And on a daily basis, I just write about it. I write sloppy poetry, standup routines, spoken word, lyrics, short stories, anything to cope, process and attempt to understand the torturous complexity of it.

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I play bass in a band, and have been in bands since I was a teenager, and that’s a double-edged sword in terms of the ‘lifestyle’ that surrounds touring aka excessively using narcotics to distract from reality. On the other hand, it’s productive to make music with pals, be creative and socialise with like-minded people. I sound like a fucking advisory sixth form pamphlet, but there’s some pertinence there.

The impact of my mental health on my creative process is so all encompassing, that I’d say it probably defines it. That’s not to say everything I write is about my mental health, it’s not – I just think it’s the reason I’m able to write, and with the day-to-day suffering, writing is an existential release, a distraction. For instance, if I’ve been romantically fucked-up, rather than seeking some sort of juvenile vengeance*, it’s a lot more productive to write something about it amidst the mist of initial anger. Those sort of etchings usually turn out shit, but it’s immeasurably better than a black eye.

*that’s not to say I’ve never sought out juvenile vengeance in this sort of instance, everyone’s been a dick at some point with exes, me more than most.

Own and utilise your mental health. Strain every ounce of productive and creative material from the darkness it inhabits, from the internal prison it scuttles around in so ruthlessly. Because it’s fucking shit, but if you can survive and cope with it, in a totally contradictory way, it can be a fruitful tool for creativity, which in turn can assist recovery or at least offer some sort of consolation or equilibrium.

Do not feel ashamed if it’s killing your productivity; I’ve gone months without writing because I’m too mentally battered to do fucking anything, never mind try to function artistically. It can come and go in waves and abstract patterns, but when you feel like jumping on the horse, fucking ride it baby.

Also, here is something I wrote about falling in love with someone through the commonality of mutually grieving someone, before realising it was fabricated and disguised by that fraudulent fate, and we were in actuality each other’s temporary crutches:

“…The cut thrust nature of rushed assimilation, is exponentially more fulfilling and overwhelmingly, pejoratively, 51% majority, more devastating and blunderbuss heart-breaking than any exit poll or neo-Nostradamus may attempt to foresee or predict…

…In the vacuous void dagger penetration, reactive self-interrogations, suicidal insinuations that transpire from grief’s bloody mire, irrationality is king…

…With the shadow of nostalgia, and the 4am terrorist insomnia, a date at the dulcimer seems a perennially beautiful idea, a way to inhabit then crucify those insipid fears, that lays separately, but between you and me we’ll have another beer…

…Warning signs are fine because signs are merely a reason to do something consequentially not right. But it felt right. It still feels right. But mutuality in feelings cannot be exclusively healing, if I want you, and you do not want me, if the sky is no higher than the ceiling, if this to me is true, if this to you is bleak…

…Love is a bastard who left me plastered on infinite occasions across the bedroom floor. Where the light behind the curtain, feels so daunting and uncertain, but the knife on my wrist makes me feel more…

…Judas and Brutas and Oswald the shooter, traits of betrayal disguised in dead eyes, honesty and jealousy are close to being enemies, but comedic tragedy ensues when they co-align…

…It’s better to admit, to be clear, to not let tears dictate that we’re stuck amidst the mist, the uncertain convicts locked in a Horwitz, an insufferable conclusion, a limbo that won’t go beyond a false collusion, an illusion, idealism of potential persecution…”

@tomandrewstew

Illumination 03 – Michael Finn

Poet Michael Finn shares his experiences of depression and how he confronts his demons head on.

‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by Michael Finn, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m 26 and I work full time for HMCTS as your regular office drone. Although my career lacks creative opportunities, it’s dull and boring enough to afford hours of time thinking about concepts and new ideas that manifest in my spare time. I have a poetry blog read by 100,000 people, and I intend to publish several novels I’m currently working on too (once I hone my writing skills and develop my techniques further).

I currently suffer mentally, and I have from around the age of 16. I am severely depressed, but high-functioning enough to go about my days unstricken for the most part. Periodically, however, that highly functional part of my condition disappears completely, and down the spiral I go. I become reckless and carefree. I simply don’t give heed to anything anymore.

This results in the everyday suicidal thoughts pushing all else aside, taking centre stage in my mind, and have led to multiple attempts of taking my own life, the worst of which was August 2016, when two attempts failed in a 48 hour period thanks to drunken dumb-luck and embarrassing eye-contact with a colleague.

Having tried multiple techniques of managing my illness, I find a few things help me the most: being completely open about it with people I meet online, anonymous or otherwise; embracing it wholly, running with it, and laughing at myself and the depression to make it seem less overbearing and omnipotent. I call depression ‘my lover’ to make it human, for instance, because that’s exactly what it is.

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Finally I often sit and think about it—why I feel low, what has possibly brought this about, how did it start—in an attempt to navigate through this maze-like state of mind to the core of the bad thoughts and break the particularly bleak spells. Though this can be bruising, the hard-faced confrontation ultimately works. Listening to gloomy music paradoxically helps me too, as the music and I seem to understand and communicate better when it matches my mood; happy, upbeat music tends to deepen the slumps and makes the m harder to escape.

Depression definitely impacts my creative process. I lose all interest as my mood worsens and I physically can’t write anything when I’m at my lowest, due to blockages and non-existent energy. It’s only when I’m over the worst of it that I can write, and the writings thereafter are about that episode’s sensations, which is cathartic no-end.

The main piece of advice I would give to people is to not run away from your illnesses, tackle them head on. Running only encourages them to chase you, and when you beat your ills face to face, you’ll feel a butt-load lighter and like you’re carved out of wood. Secondly, I fully encourage people to talk about how they feel; talk about your state of mind in all its raw, warts and all detail to whomever you feel can help you most.

Healthful Chat worked wonders for me as my anonymity remained intact and I spoke with people going through the same shit I dealt with. There’s a whole range of chatrooms to go on, and you never get people making a pass on you or dick pics or creeps sidling up to you. If these suggestions don’t work, just experiment until you find something that does. There are cures out there, it’s just a matter of having the resolve to go out and find them.

hellopoetry.com/mouthpiece // @_MickeyFinn

Illumination 02 – Sarah Graham

Journalist, content writer & editor Sarah Graham gives tips for compassionate self-care and greater productivity.

‘Illumination’ is a new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their struggles with mental health may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by Sarah Graham, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m a freelance journalist, content writer and editor, specialising in feminism, women’s health, and mental health. I’m particularly interested in the health implications of sexism and gender inequality, and the areas where feminism and wellbeing collide – so anything from reproductive rights to male suicide rates.

Creatively my focus is on feature writing and blog content, telling human stories with empathy, honesty and compassion. For me, that’s the most powerful way of raising awareness of the issues that matter, but which don’t always get the coverage they deserve.

I’ve suffered from (relatively high-functioning) depression and anxiety most of my adult life, and was recently also diagnosed with PTSD following a serious car crash at the beginning of the year. My mental health right now is definitely the shakiest it’s ever been.

A combination of medication, talking therapy, and self-care. Being able to be flexible with my time helps enormously. I’m a big advocate of naps as required, long lunch break swimming sessions, and going for a run before/after work to clear my head. I try and make time for all the classic self-care type stuff too, like bubble baths, going for a massage, taking time out of each day away from a screen to just sit and read, that kind of thing. And just listening to myself really – I’m (very slowly!) getting better at knowing when I need to stop or ease off, and when I’m feeling well enough to push myself.

Writing has definitely always been a part of my self-care, so it’s what I instinctively do when I’m struggling anyway, and I often write some of my most raw and authentic work when I’m in a really bad headspace.

That said, it can also have the exact opposite effect. I’ll have days on end where my mind just feels full of thick, dark fog and I can’t get my brain to cooperate on even the most basic tasks – let alone find the words necessary to move and engage my readers. That can be incredibly frustrating. It’s usually writing something personal or creative (unrelated to my paid work) that gets me out of that slump though – and there’s always something therapeutic about handwriting in a proper notebook, with a beautiful pen! So I find it works both ways: sometimes inspiring, sometimes paralysing.

I’ve also read a lot recently about the impact of freelancing and self-employment on mental health, but for me personally it’s always helped far more than it hinders. Of course, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of isolating yourself and not leaving the house or getting out of your pyjamas for a week, but working to my own agenda definitely helps me manage both my mental health and my creative process.

I’ve never been someone who has my best, most creative ideas between 9am and 5pm anyway, mental illness or no mental illness! I think it’s just about understanding how you work best, and not being too hard on yourself when you have a bad day.

Get up, get washed, get dressed, work at a proper desk, and eat proper meals whenever you feel able to. Don’t beat yourself up when you can’t. Make time for whatever makes you feel better, even if some days that’s sitting in bed devouring a packet of chocolate biscuits and binge-watching Netflix.

In fact, just generally be kinder to yourself. That’s advice that’s easier to give than to take – I’m very much still working on it! I think creative people generally have a tendency to be perfectionists, and to pile the pressure on themselves. I know I’m definitely at my least creative when I’m sat staring at a blank screen (or Tweetdeck, which is worse!) yelling at myself for being useless and pathetic, and to get the fuck on with it. There’s literally no time when that has ever helped.

I once almost cancelled a massage because I had a deadline looming and was feeling completely blocked about the article I was trying to work on. In the end, I realised I wasn’t getting anything done anyway and went for the massage – I drafted the entire article in my head while laying in the salon being pampered for an hour, came home and wrote it up without a problem. Self-care works!

www.sarah-graham.co.uk // @SarahGraham7

Illumination 01 – Natalie Wardle

Natalie is a visual artist and photographer from Manchester. She talks to me about how mental health has informed her work.

‘Illumination’ is a brand new series that explores the relationship between mental illness and creativity. I’m interviewing people engaged in art, music, theatre and many more creative avenues and inviting them to open up about their mental wellbeing and the way their mental health struggles may inform their work. 

If any of the issues discussed in this interview affect you, there are lots of online resources that can help. Visit Mind or the Mental Health Foundation for more information. Alternatively, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 at any time of the day or night.

Words by Natalie Wardle, as told to Harriet Williamson.

I’m a visual artist/photographer from Manchester. My work looks at how women constrict their bodies to fit in with society’s ideal physical standards, exploring shapewear and tape that is placed over nipples to both cover and repress their form.

I graduated with a BA in Photography from Manchester School of Art. I’ve exhibited my work around the UK and internationally. My project ‘Control Pant Symphony’ has been shown as part of ‘Modern History’ curated by Lynda Morris at The Atkinson in Southport, and the Parkside Gallery in Birmingham.

I’ve also attended a Canadian artist residency ‘Naked State’ at a naturist park where I explored the nuances between a ‘real’ and naked body, in contrast to a ‘fake’ and controlled body. Recently Lynda Morris curated my work again at the Cooper Gallery, where I did a live performance of Control Pant Symphony.

My creative ambition is to make art that’s relevant in today’s society, highlighting issues within the beauty industry and raising awareness of the pressures women face. I often use my own experiences and turn them into art work. I feel as though my main reason for creating the art I do is from feeling theses pressures myself, and turning bad experiences and bad moments in my life into positive work.

Since I was in high school, I’ve been told by doctors that I needed antidepressants, something I always refused and kept a secret from people around me that doctors where trying to prescribe me with things to help my mental health. I always just ignored this and thought I was just ‘growing up’ and it was normal to feel the way I did.

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Only last year I really came to the realisation that I had a serious mental health problem that was now affecting my everyday life. It took until I collapsed at work from a panic attack for me to go back to the doctors to be treated. I again refused medication due to my own personal view that I’d be too dependent on medication if I did take it, and I was offered talking therapy instead.

I have social anxiety, something I never thought I would have – and something people around me never thought I would have due to me being so over the top and seeming confident. What people don’t see is the build up to me entering a large social situation and the panic in my head that something bad is going to happen. I’ll convince myself that everyone hates me and that if I leave the house something really bad is going to happen. If I’m in a social situation where something triggers it off I’ll have a full-on panic attack where it actually feels like my heart will explode.

This is the first time I’ve talked publicly about this, and only close people know about my mental health because I’ve been embarrassed to open up to people. I didn’t want people to look at me and think ‘oh she’s overreacting’ and ‘she just wants attention, nothing’s wrong with her’ but people need to stop with that view on mental health, lucky we’re all becoming more aware about different mental health problems and how it is something to be taken seriously.

I felt like talking therapy was the best thing that has ever happened to me and I’d recommend it to anyone! I feel as though I’ve been taught so many amazing skills, I swear everyone should give it a try. I also feel as though opening up to a few people about what I’m going through has helped, I don’t feel ashamed and like I’m a complete nutter. Having a few people I can go to when I’m having a rough day and feel anxious has really helped.

I feel as though I wouldn’t be the artist I am today without my mental health problems. I feel as though when I was going through a bad time, I took the panic and bad energy I had and turned it in to art.

I feel as though anxiety has made me more aware of my surroundings and how I take something I’m passionate and having a bad time with and turn it in to art almost takes the piss out of myself feeling that way.

One of my art pieces I did at the peak of going through a bad time is ‘Sexual Symphony’, I was getting verbally harassed in a sexual way at 2 different jobs I had and I felt trapped and as though I couldn’t just walk out of my jobs due to needing money. I wasn’t being taken seriously when I was telling people how the comments where affecting me. I was sick of horrible sexual comments towards me when I was just trying to get on with doing my job and it made me full-on panic and get in a total state before going to my day job and a DJing job I had.

I took the fear I was living in and thought ‘fuck this why the fuck should I put up with this shit’ and then made it into an awareness art piece saying that this kind of thing should be taken more seriously. If it wasn’t for the bad anxiety I had from going to work and how I overthought the situation, I wouldn’t have made an art piece to let out my emotions.

Suffering with a mental illness isn’t always a bad thing, just turn it in to a positive. Use your mental illness as a creative lens on something, and use the bad energy you have inside you and turn it in to creative positive energy. Don’t think you’re alone and suffering as you’re not! There are a lot of people who can help you.

www.nataliewardle.com // Facebook // Vimeo

 

Just when you thought it had gone, Philip Hammond’s Budget brings back the Tampon Tax

Ladies, they say, we’re sorry about men who abuse you, and we’re a bit short on cash at the moment to help you out in these situations, so how about you pay for domestic violence shelters with your vaginas. You buy tampons, we tax them, and then we’ll use the money for vital services.

First published by The Independent, 8th March 2017

Prime Minister Theresa May interrupted Chancellor Philip Hammond during his Spring Budget speech to remind him that it was International Women’s Day.

Hammond attempted to attribute two announcements to himself, which had been previously made by May. Ironic that a man should appropriate a woman’s work on such a day. On reflection his Budget wasn’t much better either.

Alongside £20m to support the campaign to End Violence Against Women and Girls and £5m to help people back into work after taking a career break, the Chancellor allocated £12m raised from the so-called Tampon Tax to support women’s charities.

In 2015, George Osborne announced that all revenue from VAT on sanitary products would be earmarked for women’s charities, including domestic abuse refuges. In 2016, Cameron announced that “Britain will be able to have a zero rate for sanitary products, meaning the end of the tampon tax.” Following Brexit complications, this amendment will is due by April 2018. Until then, it looks like we are stuck with Tampon Tax 2.0 and this time, the Government seems unashamed to call it so.

Ladies, they say, we’re sorry about men who abuse you, and we’re a bit short on cash at the moment to help you out in these situations, so how about you pay for domestic violence shelters with your vaginas. You buy tampons, we tax them, and then we’ll use the money for vital services.

Domestic violence affects one in four women in their lifetime and leads to two women being murdered every week. Domestic violence has more repeat victims than any other crime. On average, there will be 35 assaults before a victim calls the police. Each year, 400 people who have been taken into hospital for domestic violence injuries in previous six months go on to commit suicide.

Since the roll-out of austerity measures in 2010, more than 30 specialist domestic violence services have been forced to close their doors due to lack of funding. In 2016, the grants given to local authorities by the central government were slashed by 56 per cent.

The charity Women’s Aid found that in just one week in 2014, 369 women were turned away from 87 domestic abuse services due to a lack of capacity. It took those women immense courage to approach services in the first place, and to be turned away and denied help due to Tory policy is a cruelty beyond words.

Specialist services for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women and girls are particularly at risk. They provide a lifeline for those who would be unlikely to feel comfortable approaching a more general domestic violence organisation. Often run by BAME women, they have specific expertise in areas like female genital mutilation, forced marriage and honour-based violence. These services have struggled to survive since their inception, and local authority cuts make their future very uncertain, potentially leaving thousands of vulnerable women and girls with nowhere to turn.

The token £12m for women’s charities is even more pathetic than George Osborne’s pledge of £15m in November 2016. It may seem like a great deal of money, but it’s important to remember that this pledge is a mere pittance compared to the amount of funding lost since the beginning of austerity in 2010.

Austerity was not inevitable. It was a political decision, made for political reasons. The architects of austerity knew who would end up paying the price for their programme.

On International Women’s Day, imagine the terror and suffering of women in domestic violence situations across the UK. Remember that the money extorted through the Tampon Tax is being used as an insulting and inadequate sticking plaster for the gaping wounds left in vital women’s services. We are literally paying, because of our gender, to mop up the blood and psychological damage inflicted by violent partners and family members.

Don’t Criminalize Teens For Sexting: Educate Them Instead

It’s tricky to be a teenager in 2015. There are increased tuition fees to think about, the unaffordable nature of housing, the lack of jobs for graduates, and the spectre of zero hour contracts looming on the horizon.

First published by The Huffington Post, 7th May 2015

It’s tricky to be a teenager in 2015. There are increased tuition fees to think about, the unaffordable nature of housing, the lack of jobs for graduates, and the spectre of zero hour contracts looming on the horizon. There are also more immediate concerns, like navigating the unstoppable tide of online pornography, cyberbullying, and exam pressure. It’s no wonder that most young people are unaware of the fact that by taking explicit pictures of themselves, they risk facing criminal charges.

A loophole in the law means that any under-18 year old taking explicit selfies can be charged with creating and sharing indecent images of children. This is particularly nonsensical in the case of 16 and 17 year olds, who can consent to sexual acts and relationships, but are unable to take or share erotic pictures of themselves. The charge of creating images of child sexual abuse is a very serious one, and the legal definition should differentiate between pictures taken consensually by over 16s and children being photographed and groomed for sexual abuse by adults.

I’m not attempting to gloss over the very real problem of teens who have their intimate photos shared with peers and strangers without their permission, after their relationship with the intended recipient has broken down. This can be absolutely devastating, particularly in the wake of the slut shaming and disrespect from friends and classmates that inevitably follows.

Criminalizing young people, however, completely misses the point. Instead of slapping teenagers with criminal records, we should endeavour to support them and provide them with high-quality, comprehensive sex and relationships education. Young people should be educated about the essential nature of consent and respect in their relationships, so that the idea of sharing another teen’s intimate photos without permission becomes socially repugnant.

Sex education desperately needs to provide a solid foundation upon which young people can build healthy, loving relationships, and respond to the pressure to be sexually desirable, to emulate pornography, and to acquiesce to the demands of partners with strength and maturity. Schools must commit to tackling the bullying of teenage girls when private images are used to humiliate and silence them, and this shouldn’t involve the police penalizing the young women themselves.

Teenagers are doing their best to cope with their entry into a highly sexualized society, and they have grown up with technology that allows them to immortalize and disseminate every minute of their lives. Equipped with hormones and smartphones, they should not be criminalized for documenting their burgeoning sexuality, and we owe them the education that will allow them to make smart, respectful choices when it comes to technology and their bodies.

Beware of the dangerous fetishising of fitness on social media

‘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’.

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.