Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and disordered eating in a way that may be distressing to some readers.
When I first heard that Tumblr aesthetics were making a comeback, I mentally started pulling out my dusty knee-high socks, plastic chokers and hackneyed attempts at coolness.
But when I actually revisited the Tumblr blog I'd started back in June 2012, I was both shocked and embarrassed. After wading through the first few months of poetic wanderlust content — the correct amount of cringe for the 13 year old I was then — my posts slowly began to change. Beachy sunset photos turned into close-ups of thin, bikini-clan bodies. Cut-off denim shorts morphed into a fixation on the gap between the legs wearing them. In the space of less than a year since I had created my Tumblr, there it was: the seemingly inevitable fall to pro-eating disorder content, thinly veiled under the guise of ♡pale soft grunge♡ aesthetic blogs.
A decade on, I can scroll through my month-by-month descent into discontent. My younger teen self suffered because of my use of Tumblr; present-day me still suffers because of it. Even though I haven’t experienced disordered eating, Tumblr’s insidious claws have shaped how I view bodies.
For writer Ruby Staley, the time between 2009 to 2014 was pigeonholed by her love of the moodboarding site — “I was simply Tumblr obsessed,” she tells Refinery29 Australia. But her innocuous hobby of curating a cool blog slowly morphed into something more dangerous.
“The models and women in the photos I frequently reblogged were stick-thin (sometimes sickly so), light-skinned, and traditionally beautiful. As a young teen, this fried my brain into thinking that looking this way was not only attainable, but totally essential to being viewed as attractive,” she says.
Staley pegs this as the catalyst for her descent into the rabbit hole of eating disorder content. “There were tips for hiding an eating disorder from your family, how to burn off more calories than you consume, and at the peak of it, fatphobic rhetoric… When I'm feeling low or gross, even to this day, thoughts of restricting my caloric intake and punishing myself still flood back.”
And now, the Internet claims that this content is making a comeback. But what happens when you never really dealt with its trauma to begin with?
I just hope this time around… young teenagers aren't exposed to the over-glamorisation of skinny party girls who don't eat and instead smoke cigarettes and drink black coffee.
“[On] Tumblr, it’s heartbreaking to consider the number of people who were overexposed to extremely thin bodies and harmful dieting messages and how this may result in lifelong internalised fatphobia and/or a bad relationship with food and exercise,” Alex Cowen, Butterfly Foundation’s Communication Manager tells Refinery29 Australia.
With our tendency to romanticise the past and willingness to gloss over problematic behaviour, young adults have been flocking to TikTok and Instagram lately to gleefully show off their past Tumblr days. #tumblr2014 has over 89 million views on TikTok and slideshows of fishnet stockings, Arctic Monkeys vinyl, and American Apparel tennis skirts are overlaid with text that reads, “bring me back,” “I miss Tumblr,” and “pov you’re a teenager in 2014”.
“I just hope this time around… young teenagers aren't exposed to the over-glamorisation of skinny party girls who don't eat and instead smoke cigarettes and drink black coffee,” says Staley, adding that she hopes platforms like TikTok and YouTube are doing more to regulate ED content.
It not only glamourised what are severe psychiatric illnesses, but created a negative feedback loop of content for susceptible people to continue engaging in eating disorder thoughts and behaviours.
“Tumblr, being an early form of social media, was very much unmoderated and created a breeding ground for… eating disorder content,” says Cowen. She notes that it was more harmful for people that were already in the holds of an eating disorder. “It not only glamourised what are severe psychiatric illnesses, but created a negative feedback loop of content for susceptible people to continue engaging in eating disorder thoughts and behaviours.”
About a decade after Tumblr's peak, users are opening up about the scars it has left behind. “When people try to fat shame you but you were on Tumblr in 2014,” reads one video. “No. We aren’t starting this again. 2014 Tumblr CANNOT come back. Twee coming back will be the beginning of the end. It wasn’t all Zooey Deschanel & moustaches… It was racism, fatphobia, SH (self harm) posts & ED forums,” reads another.
For Staley and myself, this resurgence has forced us to look in the mirror and face up to the pain inflicted by being on Tumblr.
“Like any mental health issue that goes unresolved, body image issues that are not addressed have the ability to deeply impact your mental and physical wellbeing, and in some cases may even lead to an eating disorder later down the track,” Cowen says, urging people to reach out to support networks if they’re struggling — even if it’s the result of something that happened years ago.
Chloe*, 24, tells Refinery29 Australia about why she’s chosen to switch off Rodrigo’s pop tunes and Euphoria’s weekly episodes. When she was a teenager, she was in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship, and she says that consuming that content has the power to resurface the turmoil she experienced at that time.
“That relationship caused a lot of grief, rage, bitterness, and physical trauma that in some ways I am still recovering from — and hearing Olivia sing recalls the same rage I felt. It’s just not something I want to feel when I am listening to music,” she explains.
Euphoria has been criticised for its gratuitous depictions of addiction, mental health struggles, and abuse — and for Chloe, that rings true. “I feel a similar way about Euphoria; it just hits a little too close to home. Reliving high school is not something I want to do, let alone with the same themes of abuse, drug use and toxic relationships that I had to grapple within my personal life,” she says.
It's not hyperbolic to say that almost a whole generation has been marred by body image issues surfaced by Tumblr. Many of these beliefs have lain dormant, just waiting for their moment to resurface. The best we can do is face our buried pasts head-on, armed with the knowledge, hope and resources that our younger selves were lacking.
And despite what's trending, we shouldn't underestimate the power of switching off. Setting boundaries and taking stock of what’s in your control can do wonders for our mental health. Cowen recommends making the most out of social media app functions like ‘block,’ ‘mute,’ ‘report,’ and ‘restrict’.
“Try and remain present, and don’t give your energy to something from the past,” Cowen says. “There is something really powerful in rejecting a ‘trend’ that doesn’t serve you.”
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, please call Beat on 0808 801 0677. Support and information is available 365 days a year.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.