The Influence of “Thinspiration:” Reflections on Body Image

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Posts like this are difficult for me because I never know where to start. There’s so much that needs to be said and no readily apparent way to make it cohesive. And with this week being National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I can’t leave things unsaid despite how hard it can be to say them.

I suppose the best way to start is by acknowledging the fact, as I have a few times in the past, that I don’t often get personal here on the QV blog. Sometimes I feel like that’s to the detriment of what I write–I rarely post pictures of myself or talk about what I do outside of cooking and going to the farmer’s market. It might make posts like this easier if I’d already established a healthy image of what my life is like on a daily basis instead of delving into the heavy stuff once a year to bring to light a problem that only encompasses a very small window of my existence. But it’s an important window that has given me a lot of insight into what eating disorders are like, how they affect a person psychologically and the struggles involved in trying to come out the other side.

training shadow by mzhchaThat’s why I’m more than a little horrified by the culture of “thinspiration.”

Up until a few days ago, I’d only heard the term in passing. It was a vague notion, a hashtag used by people on diets, almost an afterthought that I didn’t pay much attention to because losing weight is the absolute last thing that I need to do. But some part of me knew there was more to it than that, so off I went to Google and Pinterest to find out more for this post.

What I saw was, to say the least, sickening. I won’t link it here, and the best advice I can give anyone reading this post is to NOT look it up yourself. A search on Pinterest turns up a host of pictures and quotes promoting an ultra-thin body image as the ideal and vilifying anything that stands in the way. Instagram is even worse. Both sites supposedly have policies against “self-harm” content, but under the guise of “thinspiration,” the people who post these pictures promote disordered eating as a lifestyle. It’s not inspiration in any sense of the word; it’s a pro-eating-disorder culture that features snapshots of scantily clad, ultra-thin women, slogans that encourage restrictive behaviors and links to all manner of dangerous “diet tips.”

Highly visual sites aren’t the only places where this kind of content shows up. It’s everywhere: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, journaling sites like LiveJournal–if you want to find it, you can. One of the worst things about it, besides the fact that it exists in the first place, is that it is a community. People idealize these images, compare themselves to what they see and encourage each other to keep on going until they reach a number on the scale that, they think, will magically make them happy.

It’s been shown that people who look at “thinspiration” images, even those who have never engaged in disordered eating practices, wind up drastically reducing their caloric intakes, and the effects can last for weeks. Though content like this has been around since the inception of the Internet, social media and mobile devices have made it possible to access vast amounts of it anytime, anywhere. This can be disastrous for someone with an eating disorder or who is on the cusp of one. Eating disorders have a way of being highly competitive, especially anorexia. Anorectics compare themselves to each other, each striving to be the thinnest, not seeing where that road leads. Whereas that competition may once have been limited to a few individuals in an isolated location, the Internet has allowed it to explode into a vast subculture with who knows how many thousands of women and men “supporting” each other on a path that could very easily lead to death.

The problem isn’t made any better by the lack of understanding in society as a whole. There are so many off-the-wall diet behaviors out there that disordered eating seems fairly normal in comparison, if it gets noticed at all. The American population is constantly dieting–what’s one more person among the multitude? Doctors often don’t recognize the signs of these disorders, nor would many of them know what questions to ask if they did see that something was amiss. In my own experience, all I ever got from medical staff when I started to lose weight was praise that shifted to a kind of bewildered silence when it got to the point of being serious.

This massive disconnect is embodied in the NEDAwareness Week theme for 2015, “I Had No Idea.” Though a series of images and facts, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is trying to show just how easy it is to cross the line from what society sees as normal behavior into the abyss that is an eating disorder. From bullying to exposure to unrealistic images of “ideal” bodies, triggers are everywhere–with “thinspiration” being one of the worst.

So what really is the “ideal” body? There’s no one answer, and there never has been.  The ideal for both women and men has fluctuated wildly throughout history and will continue to do so. There was a time when carrying what would now be considered extra weight was seen as a sign of affluence or prosperity. In the 1960s, Twiggy came along and ultra-thin was in. Men have been expected to be anything from big and strong to trim and suave. Now we seem to be a culture that fixates on being lean and muscular whether you’re a man or a woman.

The problem, of course, with having any kind of “ideal” body image is that only a certain subset of people will ever be able to attain it. For the rest of us, it’s a ridiculous–and often dangerous–goal that we have to fight the very laws of genetics to try and achieve. More often than not, this involves using harmful, self-destructive methods instead of embracing the way our bodies were meant to look. Each of us was given a unique body, designed by God from the moment of conception, knit together by His hand and designed in His image. We are meant to treat those bodies as what they are–divinely made, and temples of His spirit. We weren’t made to be “perfect” and thin; we were made to be what God has planned for us to be.

There is hope in communities that embrace this kind of thinking. Proud2Bme brings positive body image messages to young people and provides a healthy community where they can learn the facts about eating disorders, get real inspiration, share their stories and, if need be, find help. Operation Beautiful encourages people to leave “You are beautiful” notes wherever they go with the goal of “ending negative self-talk.” People involved in these efforts recognize the need for a positive attitude when it comes to body image and understand that everyone needs a little help loving the skin they’re in, no matter what shape it happens to be.

girl in white by Mateusz Stachowski

Photo by Mateusz Stachowski

Plant-based eaters have a responsibility in all of this as well. As members of a health-conscious community, we have to be careful not to contribute to the problems that thinspiration is causing. I think at times the desire to eat clean–avoiding additives, salt, sugar, BPA, sulfites or whatever the buzzword of the day is–gets a little out of hand. There’s a tendency toward nutritional elitism that could be dangerous for the disordered eater. Developing exact food rules is a hallmark of eating disorders, and for someone who is trying to recover, suddenly encountering a whole new set of rules and rituals could send them on a downward spiral. When you already have a problem with restriction, breaking a perceived rule necessitates some kind of compensation, be it restriction, purging or over-exercising.

I’ve been there. I’m still there some days with my own struggles. There are times when the perceived need to burn calories, stay below a certain percentage with fat intake or eat only 100 percent “clean” foods takes over my entire day, robbing me of productivity and undermining the enjoyment that I should be getting out of food.

I’m not saying that eating plant-based causes these things. In fact, there are many people who credit veganism with being a big part of their recovery, myself included.  I just want to point out that what we say and how we treat others can have a big impact on how they see and treat themselves.  We need to be supportive without setting some ideal that only seems attainable through a disordered pattern of eating.

Most importantly, as part of society as a whole, we need to stand up, take notice and take action against the culture of thinspiration and the devastating problems it glorifies. We need to open eyes and hearts to the reality of the epidemic of eating disorders to help the millions of people who are struggling right now. We need to realize that every body is special and every life is precious–and everyone deserves a chance to live without fear or fixation on some unattainable, unrealistic “ideal.”

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About the Author:

Sam has been a vegan since summer of 2009 and has spent the subsequent years experimenting with all manner of vegan food. She holds a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and is a graduate of the Bauman College Nutrition Consultant Program. She is a member of Toastmasters International and currently serves as part of the Capital View Toastmasters club. When she's not blogging or cooking, Sam likes to read and study the Bible, play silly card games and knit socks.
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