Facebook is the New Pro- Eating Disorder Site

This post was written by a student in the Stanford’s Winter 2011 Networked Rhetoric class; it was designed to focus in on a particular source or research experience related to his project on social media and digital culture .  See a more detailed overview of this assignment.

The proliferation of pro-eating disorder websites has created a perverse online sanctuary for women struggling with anorexia and bulimia. Because eating disorders are inherently isolating in the ‘real’ world, blogrings and numerous forums provide these women with a sense of companionship, along with tips for maintaining their unhealthy lifestyles and erroneous propaganda suggesting that eating disorders are a choice, not a disease. Given the distinct divergences in the eating disorder experience offline and online, I am researching the extent to which cyber communities can transcend the isolating realities of these diseases and how this online world affects recovery.

Although I began my research with the intent of focusing primarily on sites specifically dedicated to eating disorders, a recent study by psychologists at the University of Haifa indicates that pro-eating disorder messages have infiltrated mainstream websites. The study particularly focused on Facebook as a potential catalyst for eating disorders among young women; researchers found a direct correlation between the amount of time spent on Facebook and a young woman’s propensity for eating issues. An article from The Jerusalem Post explains, “The authors hinted that being constantly involved with Facebook promoted a single minded focus on oneself – one’s looks, habits, and behaviors.”

The fact that Facebook usage has now been linked with eating disorders is not entirely surprising after studying specific pro-ana and pro-mia sites. Many of these websites include galleries of “thinspiration,” or images meant to trigger disordered thoughts of comparison and inspire “good behavior.” Celebrities make up a large part of this “thinspiration,” with photos of actresses and models prompting widespread commentary such as “I agree, Ginta has a more memorable face, kasia is kinda forgettable. But I would KILL for her super skinny arms!” But in addition to photos of skinny celebrities, most sites also include “real girl thinspo,” or pictures of regular women who fit the disordered standards. These visuals are intended as encouragement, and they work to prompt site visitors to compare their own bodies to those held up as ideal. With Facebook’s emphasis on photo sharing, the site naturally invites the same element of comparison. I had a friend in high school who would specifically friend girls she did not know, but whose profile pictures seemed to promise hundreds of other visuals to which she might compare her own Facebook photos. Another friend’s favorite pastime involved starting from another friend’s first ever posted picture and working her way to the latest upload to visually track the other girl’s weight fluctuations as a reminder of the perils of “slipping up.”

A quick search of Facebook groups, however, suggests that most of the site’s information explicitly referring to eating disorders concerns anti-eating disorder and pro-recovery messages. Jezebel reported, in light of the University of Haifa’s study, that Facebook policies dictate the removal of any pro-harm material, and that pro-ana and pro-mia are considered pro-harm. Nonetheless, the basic purposes of Facebook still allow for the possibility that the site triggers disordered thoughts in users and enables the same type of behavior seen on sites devoted to pro-eating disorder messages. With the University of Haifa’s study’s assertion that Facebook has replaced pro-ana and pro-mia sites, I look forward to directing more of my research at how Facebook contributes to the online eating disorder experience.

Relevant Articles:

Link Found Between Facebook use and eating disorders

Of Course Facebook Increases Risk of Eating Disorders

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6 Responses to Facebook is the New Pro- Eating Disorder Site

  1. Kyle Vermeer says:

    Hey,

    This is Kyle from Section 1. I really think you have a cool, timely, and relevant topic. You did a great job setting up a background of the the whole situation, I felt very informed by the time I reached your description of the source. It is all very interesting and it is a topic that many people are really going to care about.

    The only thing I would be very careful of is to explain why Facebook is special in this regard. It will be easy to identify Facebook as one of these pro-eating disorder websites, but the really interesting part of the paper will be about why this is and how this affects society at a greater level.

    This project looks like it is going to be provocative and fun, keep up the good work!

    Kyle

  2. Rachel says:

    This sounds really interesting! Definitely something that I know plenty of girls experience.

    I’m curious about how the pro-an messages on Facebook might be different than those on other sites. Maybe it’s not as explicit because its through a platform that many people are involved in anyways? Does it make it seem less different and maybe more okay?

    I think that its important that you include this even if it wasn’t in the original plan. It seems key and maybe one of the ways that many people link in to these sorts of sites in the first place.

    It seems like it might also have potential to be featured as a case study in your paper since it sounds like prestigious groups are conducting research on the topic.

  3. Nathan Mass says:

    I find this topic to be very interesting and unique. Admittedly, I’ve never really thought about a correlation between facebook and anorexia, especially considering the popularity of facebook. It would be great if you could explore more into this relationship in your RBA.

    I’m still curious about how you think facebook differs with sites that actively promote anorexia (blogs, thinspiration). What are some of the psychological effects of seeing thousands of profile pages?

  4. Ana Cristina says:

    Very well written post. I think that you have a great point here- Facebook does provide a medium for girls to be constantly comparing their bodies and getting feedback on their image through their different picture. It’s funny to think of all the pictures that we “detag”, thinking of how we look like to the rest of the world, and it would make sense that this continuous worry about self-image can lead girls into more eating disorders. Not only do girls have enough bombarding of “the perfect body” through the media, but now they get to see other girls’ pictures and how they compare. But then again, the purpose of the pictures on Facebook is to allow your friends a glimpse into your life, and I think that it could be argued that any site in which various users put pictures up could lead to comparison and affect girls’ self-image. Is there anything that can be done about it? This is a really great research topic though, and I think very relevant to girls today.

  5. melisuss says:

    I think facebook links people with all sorts of interests. Republicans, gamers, fans of Lady Gaga… I am not surprised that there is a facebook subculture for people with eating disorders, but I think it is a HUGE generalization to say that all of facebook is a potential catalyst for eating disorders. Some subgroups may have that characteristic, but I have never seen someone I know subscribe to that subculture on FB… I think your argument is not really convincing. Perhaps you can narrow your focus?

  6. Pingback: Researching Networked Culture | The Cross-Cultural Rhetoric Blog

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