Thinspiration, or “thinspo,” may have been banned from social media sites like Pinterest and Tumblr, but its “healthier” counterpart, “fitspo“—which, for all intents and purposes, is basically the same thing with an emphasis on muscles instead of bones—is still shared on essentially every major channel of electronic communication. One is abhorred as eating disorder trigger, and the other is more widely accepted as “healthy” or “normal,” but neither one is likely to go anywhere any time soon—because the fact is, this kind of imagery impacts us deeply on many levels. So many levels, in fact, that banning it is not only unlikely to erase the problem, but more likely to make those who depend on it become defensive of it.
Bonnie Brennan, MA, LPC, and clinical director of the adult partial hospitalization program at Eating Recovery Center, says that both thinspo and fitspo are about more than just motivation—and, she says, they’re more similar than you might think.
“The amount of time in the brain spent on engaging in the activity looks very similar,” says Brennan. “At Eating Recovery Center, we have patients whose eating disorder is about fitness. One thing that’s common, from in-patients to those who are just exploring disordered eating, is an attempt to change the body as a way to create or get rid of emotions. ”
What is it about these images that not only make them popular, but make them feel so essential to so many individuals that they’re constantly looking for a new outlet to share and consume them once they’ve been banned? Here’s how Brennan explained it:
The way that I look at it and try to explain it to my patients is that people are human beings, looking for relief from pain. We want to avoid negative emotions, and we experience emotions in our body, and there’s a bodily sensation that happens. So we go and look at this kind of imagery for whatever it means for the person looking for it. It provides the fantasy of relief from whatever we’re struggling with. It’s almost like a drug–you’re chasing something impossible.
Unfortunately, the rationale behind many bans of the material—that it can trigger or cause eating disorders in young people—isn’t quite accurate. Because, says Brennan, while it can be a trigger, for many individuals suffering from emotional distress or disordered eating behaviors, it goes well beyond that initial shift–it’s what fuels the fire, and fills a void.
The trigger is not often what maintains the eating disorder for the long-term, so for those who go back to looking at the images, they’re usually finding a maintenance piece. It’s almost like voyeurism. It’s a sense of intimacy, to connect with others who feel this way… A lot of time, with the fitspo stuff, they come with a recipe or a workout guide. They can serve as a template, or a guide to life. You can work toward achieving a goal and feeling better about yourself, but it’s not long-lasting.
And many women struggling with an eating disorder (whether it be exercise bulimia, ED-NOS, full-blown anorexia, or another form) grow protective over thinspo and fitspo, because it does become so integral to maintaining and continuing their disorder. Much like drug addicts, they’ll be upset if they think they can’t get what they need—which is why bans often don’t work. Bans also enforce the secrecy that accompanies eating disorders. When it’s hidden away and forbidden and banned, says Brennan, it’s harder to know when someone you love may be spending too much time engaging with it, because they’ll either hide it–or they’ll go find a more “acceptable” substitute, like fitspo.
At the end of the day, says Brennan, individuals or groups who gather around thinspo or fitspo are just looking for an answer, which they believe will come as the result of a thin or a fit body. And that’s the real root of all of this—that many of us believe we would be happier, or feel better, or be more successful if we were more fit, more toned, more thin, more whatever—which is unfortunately true, in some cases. (Thin women have been statistically shown to make more money and be more respected in the workplace.)
But banning certain kinds of images and persecuting those who find solace in them only attacks a symptom of a much larger disease—society’s obsession with thinness and fat-phobia. When there’s no need for thinspo and fitspo (or when we can be inspired by these images without needing them to feel better about ourselves), then maybe they’ll begin to recede. Until then, promoting diversity in mainstream imagery (natural models, more emphasis on positive body image, more exposure to various body types) can help build a more supportive culture of non-thin bodies. But as long as there are women (and men) in pain and seeking relief, these images will find a way to get online for anyone who wants them (and those of us who don’t).
Image: Mandrakephoto via Shutterstock