**I am fully disclosing right now that this post involves some topics that are difficult for those with an ED (no, not erectile dysfunction). I’m telling you now – this is “mild” on the “trigger” scale, but if you’re sensitive to this, consider passing. There aren’t triggering pictures, but I’ll summarize so curiosity is sated: it’s about a bunch of girls following unhealthy body image and care standards and encouraging each other in a public online venue. They don’t know what “healthy” is, and they don’t know that they’re spreading the e-equivalent of toxic sludge, and I kind of don’t like that. That’s it. If you have an ED and browse the web, you already know what’s up.**
I use “trend” in the title, but honestly, it’s not a trend: it’s a rather stable norm on the internet. In its fully conscious form, it’s called “pro-ana” or “pro-mia,” and it ranges from “inspirational” pictures that tell girls not to eat because “food doesn’t taste as good as skinny feels” from full-blown instructions on how to trick oneself into feeling full when one hasn’t eaten for days, or how to make oneself vomit (or defecate) to lose weight. If you can’t tell, it’s a warped support group for those with eating disorders – only they’re supporting the disorder, not each other.
Like I said, this isn’t really a trend because it isn’t really new: all venues of anonymous internet interaction have had this in some form. I can only speak for the past decade or so – “write what you know,” they say – so I can testify to these forms: forums, semi-interactive privately ran websites, blogs (yes, WordPress has a pro-mia presence, too – although Xanga and LiveJournal were more popular), and now it’s somewhere in the realm of what I (idiotically) call “new stuff:” Tumblr, mildly YouTube, and now Pinterest, which isn’t exactly new, but it’s now experiencing a popularity boost.
Pinterest, for those of you who don’t know, is kind of like Tumblr. You create “boards” – different, uniformly designed Tumblrs linked to one account, basically – and then “pin” pictures online to them. You can “repin” others’ pictures onto your own boards within Pinterest’s website, as well. As the name implies, it’s a set of shareable, online cork boards where you pin pictures of things you like onto each board – your “pinterests.” I find it much nicer than Tumblr, as linking to the original content is much more common, and it’s not big enough to be as chaotic and splintered in its topics.
Pinterest has some problems. First: it’s mainly women. There’s a few infographics floating around the internet, so I’ll pull one up for your viewing pleasure here. An image should not be without its context, so the site source is here, as well. The title is “Pin It To Win It: A Marketer’s Guide To Pinterest.” (Pssst – if you can’t tell, they want to sell you things.)
Now. Women. Pinterest, at the time of the infographic’s making, was 87% women. As an active participant, I can say that I’m very confident in that number remaining the same as of this posting. Pinterest is nearly ALL WOMEN. Some people would think that would foster a very kind, caring environment where women get together, sing peacetime songs, and talk about their male oppressors, but no. The internet doesn’t work like that, and same-sex competition doesn’t work like that. As my human biology course likes to say, women have a biological tendency and vested interest in competing with one another if males control significant amounts of resources. (This is America: they do.) You can argue that one until the cows come home, but you can’t argue how nasty some women can get on that site. (Go browse the “pins” and see the comments – sheesh!)
Naturally, it’s not all bad. People share with each other and can be quite pleasant! The main interests on Pinterest are a little strangely skewed, though: beauty (hair/makeup/nail polish/tutorials), clothing, “Products I Want/Like,” child-rearing, fantasy weddings, fantasy houses, DIY projects, and general homemaker, 1950s-era things. This is the “problem” of the site being 87% women – a combined 56% of them being 25 to 44: the focus isn’t that broad. It’s very much heterosexual female-oriented during a time in a woman’s life where she’s in her reproductive prime and most likely to have children. From a biological standpoint, the interests of these women, as observed, follow rather logically. From a cultural standpoint, however, it creeps me out. Weddings without the actual spouse creep me out. Weddings with the spouse who doesn’t know he or she is the spouse also creep me out. But that’s me.
So, okay. We’ve got a website. It’s nearly all-female. It’s skewed toward stereotypically female topics. If you couldn’t tell yet, it also is the Holy Grail for marketing and sales because, hey, you can’t share many metaphysical things with pictures, so you share physical ones. Ones that you, in general, buy. So, we have this microcosm of highly-focused material cultural exchange going on in the form of picture-sharing. We have a mix of users – many of whom have also utilized Tumblr, or at least know how to use Google image search, which will happily link you there.
Here’s where our actual problem starts.
I will not link to a single damn picture that gets posted in regard to pro-ana and pro-mia and pro-thin and whatever else you want to call it. I won’t do that. You go search for yourself – it’s disturbingly easy to find in all levels of severity.
I don’t want to speak much on the topic of eating disorders themselves, which may sound counter-intuitive. However, I refrain simply because I am not qualified. I am not qualified professionally or even personally, because honestly: these images make me feel like shit. I would hate for any of my hang-ups, conscious or not, to seep into something I want to be as straightforward as possible. So, I’ll refrain. However, I’ll give you a few anecdotes.
You’re cruising Pinterest. When you first go to the website and sign in, you’re sent to your main page, which is customized with pins from people you follow, or subscribe to. You look at a few cat pictures, “hmm” thoughtfully at a few interesting DIY projects, maybe roll your eyes at yet another slew of wedding planning pictures from people who can’t even legally drink yet – well, if you’re me, anyway – and then maybe this happens.
You come across a picture. It says something – usually in regard to controlling your body, being its master, running, becoming thin, the disgusting properties of adipose, or something along those lines. It’s interesting to note that many of these photos have Nike clothing and shoes in them very prominently. (THAT is something worth looking into, by the way.)
You frown at this – what the hell? Really? Who posted that? A friend, or maybe someone you don’t even know but follow because you share tastes, or Pinterest automatically subscribed you based upon a tastes questionnaire. “Well,” you think, “the board is called “Thinsperation” (or maybe “Fitsperation” or “Inspiration” or some other harmless but suggestive moniker), so I’ll just unfollow that specific board.” You do so, and you still get to see their cat pictures on their other board. Win-win, right? You don’t have to see it, and they have the right to post it because they…really like fitness. Something.
No. No, that’s not the end of it.
You browse the “popular” section because, well, it’s convenient, and there’s at least one or two pins you want to repin to your own boards every time you look. It’s usually an eclectic mix of art, clothing, jokes, animals, more DIY projects, more weddings, makeup…and, of course, quotes! People like quotes. People like different fonts arranged in an aesthetically-pleasing way, even if there’s no actual “picture” involved.
You instantly notice most of them are Kate Moss: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”
“Well,” you think again, “that’s kind of uninformed. Kate Moss is kind of a jerk and maybe has some body image issues.” You keep browsing.
But now there’s literally a freaking cross-stitch pillow for sale – $110.00 plus shipping – that has the phrase hand-stitched onto it for your viewing pleasure. Lovely.
Soon, you start to see a pattern: this body shit is fucking everywhere. A quote about never giving up? Leads to a Tumblr with a name something like “iwillseriouslydietofitintohollisterjeans” – and that name’s not hyperbole. I wish it was. It’s not.
A food recipe? Leads to a food-shaming site that talks about how disgusting it is to put that food into your body, and how you should feel terrible that you even considered it.
A cute picture of a street fashion moment caught in the everyday? The caption underneath is “I am working SO HARD to be this thin – then I’ll be good enough to love!”
It’s everywhere. It. Is. Everywhere.
We’re not done, though. Oh, no.
See, you ignore that – it’s not healthy, why the hell would you pay attention? – but it’s in the back of your head. You try to avoid it, but you find yourself running into it more and more. Maybe you start unfollowing boards about food because you don’t want to see pictures of it all the time anymore. Maybe you start a “get fit” board because, hey, it IS starting to get warm outside, and spring break is SO soon… That means bikini season, naturally! You have to lose weight for that, right? Sure, some of these pictures are kinda silly, but when you’re really dedicated, you need all the support you can get, right? Besides, this girl is so pretty, and she used to weigh so much! She succeeded! I should follow her because she posts great workouts and says she’s willing to help anyone do what she did.
And now you’ve gone down the rabbit hole. This may not happen to you – I hope it doesn’t – but this is exactly how it can: exposure, desensitization, constant barrage, acceptance, participation. This is how it works in real life. Pinterest just happens to have it down to a science.
It’s something I don’t have. But, others might.
Don’t be afraid to talk about this. Women are primed from a young age – for my generation, it started in middle school – to not “complain about their weight.” AKA, you aren’t supposed to express how you feel about your body, and even positive affirmations aren’t exactly welcomed. The more secretive negative feelings toward oneself are, though, the more power they have. So ignore the people who claim it’s “just for attention” – talk.
However, don’t talk with the wrong people. The wrong people, unfortunately, may be your family and dearest friends. It’s not their fault; they’re in the same cultural drain you are. Our society is a mess in this respect. People aren’t happy, and they aren’t mentally healthy: it’s only logical that the body follows the mind in this regard. It comes out in physical illness, in obesity, and in being underweight. (You can also be those things without mental health problems, mind, but know that physical condition can be intrinsically linked with mental.)
So, who to talk to? That’s hard. General practitioners – the person you see for general health stuff at the clinic – are known for not understanding eating disorders and saying really hurtful things. This is an international problem in medicine and doesn’t reflect on you. I suggest trying your university counseling center. I know it can be difficult or scary, and honestly, not all universities have good quality counseling. However, it’s a good first step, and it’s one that you’re strong enough to do. (Trust me – if you need it, you’re strong enough for it.)
If you happen to live on campus (or in Seattle, or in various areas across Minnesota), you have an extra option: the Emily Program. The Emily Program is a great place to get help, to get information, and to get healthy. Their website is for anyone – even people who are just curious and don’t have any body image issues at all. I recommend that everyone go there because I guarantee you a friend, either now or in the future, WILL have this problem, and you’ll want to be there for them.
Below, I’ve linked to UCCS – University Counseling & Consulting Services – Boynton’s mental health section (yeah, you see the ads all over campus, deal with it), and, finally, The Emily Program. Its main color is orange. You’ve probably seen an ad or two on the side of our Metro Transit buses. They’ve got tons of articles, videos, and information on eating disorders – and it’s not stuff that you learned in high school health class. You might be really surprised as to what qualifies as disordered eating.
I don’t know what to do about Pinterest. I hope that, like Tumblr, they take an active approach against what have been generally referred to as “self-harm blogs” (or boards, in this situation). It’s very difficult to cut content because some people will simply discuss their experience, while others will actively promote it, while OTHERS will try to promote fitness in language that’s not healthy or appropriate. It’s dicey territory, but good on them for going there. Really.
Until then, I’m honestly limiting my own time on Pinterest because a) I don’t like exposing myself to harmful stuff, and b) I seriously have a lot of homework.
UCCS – http://www.uccs.umn.edu/
Boynton Mental Health Main Page (Resources on the left – there’s quite a few!) – http://www.mentalhealth.umn.edu/
The Emily Program (which I think everyone should visit online) – http://www.emilyprogram.com/