Instagram has been getting a lot of attention recently, and not just for its terms-of-service debacle. It's become a resource for some women to find images to feed their anorexia — also known as "thinspiration" or "thinspo." A large part of eating disorders is a "community" sensibility, in which fellow anorexics or bulimics share harmful tips for extreme diet and exercise — even to the point of egging on each other's fasting attempts.
As Jezebel reports, this recent issue has brought up an important question about what is to be done about this issue; not simply in terms of Instagram, but as an Internet-wide issue that seems impossible to contain. For example: On Instagram alone, the search term "anorexic" has 108,068 photos hashtagged, but there are dozens of versions of the tag, from "#anorexicmind" to "#anorexicdiet" to "#anorexicleg," along with many other eating-disorder-specific tags that do not include the full name of the disease, making it difficult, if not impossible, to monitor and regulate harmful content.
Disturbingly, searches for "thinspo" images bring up pictures of skinny women and emaciated body parts alongside quotes and images featuring themes of self-hatred, self-harm, loneliness, depression, suicide — even charts showing users' daily weight and calorie intake. One sad example: One young woman uses her Instagram account to post daily pictures of herself in a hospital bed with a feeding tube in her nose, giving progress on her fight to stay alive while also remaining determined to starve herself. Cries for help uneasily coexist with mantras encouraging this horrendous disease.
While Instagram has been taking measures to control the disturbing content by posting warnings when a person searches for certain eating-disorder-specific term, this is obviously a small bandage for a large societal wound. Sadly, it seems that as long as our culture continues to glorify extreme thinness, disordered eating will exist, and young women (and men) will find ways to use the Internet as a tool to find and share images that may exacerbate their conditions. To truly make a change, all of us — the media, the fashion and advertising industries, and parents — will need to commit to continuing to promote the idea that beauty does not depend on how large or small we are, but on our character and the features that make us unique. As supermodel Sophie Dahl has said about promoting healthy self-images in girls: "Society is conditioned to tell little girls they look like princesses. It should also be that she's incredibly clever, funny, kind and loyal, and that she's a great friend. You have to continue to reinforce other attributes which are more important than beauty."