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.