This Is The Last Time We'll Write About This Dangerous Trend

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Trigger warning.

Last week, the odd phrase “iPhone 6 knees” began trending on social media, and once again, my colleagues and I were faced with a queasy decision: Ugh, do we really have to write up another one of these disturbing thinness “challenges”? Earlier last month, there was the A4 paper challenge, and before that, we had the belly button challenge and the collarbone challenge. I’m acknowledging them here for the sake of clarity and transparency, because we’ve written about these "challenges" before. But this is the last time you’ll read about them on this site.

Yes, we’ve covered these trends in the past, with justified outrage. It made sense, because body positivity is an integral part of our ethos, and it felt only right that we call out something so grotesque and, more importantly, damaging. But there’s always been something uncomfortable about it. When this latest challenge emerged last week, our director of Health & Wellness, Anna Maltby, approached me about if and how we might cover another one of these unsettling stories in the smartest, most responsible way. That’s when it finally hit me: There isn’t one.

We cover offensive topics and people all the time, of course. Often, we get flak for “giving them a platform,” but that’s simply not the case most of the time. We can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend Trump isn’t happening. Sometimes we deliberately highlight points of view we don’t agree with, understanding that a significant portion of our readers do agree (see: this recent profile of an anti-abortion activist). It’s responsible and educative to consider the other side of an issue. But this is different. When it comes to these viral body-measurement trends, there’s no pro and con argument, no nuance or depth. There’s just a bunch of pictures.

That is the crux of the problem: We can’t cover these stories without showing these pictures or at least acknowledging them. We can couch them in thoughtful criticism, provide expert commentary on body image, and present the whole thing with a big, fat trigger warning, but in the end, we’ll still be serving these photos to hundreds of millions of our readers. Even if they read every word (and statistically, most of them won’t), we all know a picture is worth a thousand words.

Looking through the lens of an eating disorder, a picture is worth far more.

“Anything that claims to gauge one's thinness and is accompanied by the word ‘challenge’ is going to be harder to resist for an eating disordered person,” Kelsey Osgood told me. The author of How To Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, Osgood is both personally and professionally versed in the language and rituals of ED. While these images are not precisely the same as pro-ana propaganda (which isn’t simply about thinness, Osgood explains, “but rather about aspiring to be pathological in addition to being dangerously thin”), they’d very likely have a similar impact. “My guess is that if someone with an eating disorder didn't ‘succeed’ at one of these challenges, he or she would feel like a fat failure, even if exhibiting a myriad other symptoms/side effects of an eating disorder," Osgood adds.

This doesn’t just matter to those already in the grip of ED. The concept of “thinspiration” long ago crept beyond the bounds of eating-disorder terminology and into our mainstream parlance. It doesn't only speak to the state of our cultural beauty standards; it indicates that our susceptibility to disordered eating and/or body image is utterly endemic. In the U.S. alone, 30 million people will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime — and that doesn’t include those who go undiagnosed or struggle with disordered eating at a sub-clinical level. Setting aside the astonishing statistics on ED specifically, the data on the influence of images is staggering on its own.

Over and over again, studies underscore the heavy influence of images in fashion and/or women’s publications: 47% of 5th- to 12th-grade girls reported wanting to lose weight specifically because of magazine pictures, while 69% of that same group said those images inform their idea of the ideal body shape. A 2003 study reported that women who read fashion magazines displayed higher levels of “thin-ideal internalization.” Yet another study simply showed women slides of images from popular magazines, after which the subjects displayed increased depression, stress, guilt, shame, and insecurity. Much of this data dates back to the late ‘90s and early 2000s, when the majority of teenage girls spent, on average, 4.3 hours per week looking at magazines.

But that was before most mainstream media consumption shifted to the web. Today, teens spend an estimated nine hours a day online. And whether on social media or other websites, those teens aren't spending much of that time reading. They’re spending it looking.

“Of course they could potentially inspire people to develop destructive eating and/or exercising habits,” says Osgood of the thinness challenges. “But more than anything, I just find it extremely depressing that as a society we aren't as far along in terms of devaluing the visual image as we should be.”

Indeed, images have an arguably higher value than ever before. Yet they have never been cheaper, more accessible, or more easily shared. With hundreds of millions of viewers coming to our site and our social media platforms every day, we at Refinery29 play an undeniable role in that shareability. We don’t take that lightly. It is a staggering honor.

Viral images go viral for a reason. If we continued to publish or publicize these thinness-challenge images, even in the most critical context, we would be part of that reason. We would be giving them a platform. Even if other publications with equally large audiences do so (and, again, we’ve covered these trends in the past, so we’re not going to throw stones), we don’t want to add our voice to that chorus anymore. And if our online friends agree with this stance and want to follow suit, we welcome and support you doing so. Nothing speaks louder than solidarity.

We are beholden to our readers and we can’t deny that they, as much as we, are vulnerable to the fascination — be it disgust or idealization — that these images elicit. I’m just one writer here, and I receive, on average, four emails a week from readers in real distress over their bodies. That, too, is a staggering honor, and one I wish so fervently that I could live up to. I as a writer, and we as a site, can only do so much to undo the terrible harm that thinness challenges and similar imagery have already inflicted.

But this we can do, so we’re doing it: Going forward, if there are people who haven’t heard about this challenge or whatever challenge comes next, we’re not going to be the ones to tell them about it. We owe you all that much.

If you think you or someone you know may have an eating disorder, visit the National Eating Disorders Association to find help.

It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.

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