Thursday, August 30, 2012

Wasting Away On The Web: Thinspiration

Today more than ever, women are faced with an ideal of beauty that most cannot (and more importantly, should not) attain. Adding to this problem is the growing prevalence of 'Thinspiration' photos on social media sites like Pinterest, Facebook and Tumblr. Last week, Jennifer Swafford shared her healthy weight loss journey. Tomorrow, we are taking this topic a step further as my good friend Marissa Roy discusses her past issues with body image. To lead into her story, I'd like to explore what online messages are saying to women and how the growing social media network is fueling the fire that leads to unhealthy body images. Yes, we're getting serious today. This is a serious issue that probably affects more people in our lives than we even realize.

So let's talk about it.

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As society's ideal of beauty continues to evolve into almost skeleton-like proportions, more and more women, particularly women in their 20's and 30's, face the struggle of living with an eating disorder. Marilyn Monroe, who wore a size 14, is no longer the epitome of beauty in our country. Now celebrities such as Nicole Richie, Kate Moss and the Olsen twins grace the covers of magazines, sending the message that 'thin is in'.

In the late 1990's/early 2000's, these body image 'standards' began a growing trend of pro-ana/pro-mia websites - websites BY and FOR women who had eating disorders. Instead of providing an online community where women could come openly and receive support and strategies for battling their disorders, these sites encouraged women to embrace their current lifestyles, even going so far as to offer tips for hiding the disorder from the people around them.

When I researched this topic in 2005 for a class I was taking, some of these sites could still be found online. On the former Ana's Underground Grotto Website (a pro-anorexia site), I found these words, "Volitional, proactive anorexia is not a disease or a disorder. There are no VICTIMS here. It is a lifestyle choice. If we ever completely tapped that potential in our midst, and applied it to other areas, we could change the world. Completely. Is THAT what we are so afraid of? Is THAT why they strive so eagerly to silence our voices?"

I find this utterly disturbing. Apparently, so did website hosts like Yahoo!. They began shutting down the sites in 2001 and banning new site creation going forward.

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Sadly, this didn't quite solve the problem. These websites have a new voice today in the form of Thinspiration photos, photos depicting skinny women and sometimes completely emaciated women with protruding bones and concave stomachs. The photos are meant to serve as motivation - motivation to workout more and eat less. These photos may not be harmful to some viewers, but to others, they can be the proverbial 'straw that broke the camel's back'.

The severity of this growing epidemic has increased drastically in the past decade. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), as many as 10 million women and 1 million men suffer from an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia.

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Society’s ideal of beauty has evolved into something incredibly ugly. As much as we try to send positive messages with ad campaigns like Dove's 'Campaign for Real Beauty', beauty is still being portrayed as physical, with an emphasis on ‘less being more.’ Even the most famous models and celebrities will admit to thousands of dollars worth of airbrushing and ridiculous hours spent at the gym. What women are seeing on the internet and magazine covers is NOT reality. When women compare themselves to these models, they fail to realize that models do not represent the majority of women in the United States. Models are thinner than 98 percent of women in this country, and oftentimes, their health suffers because of it.

As females, we really can’t be blamed for our distorted body images. Since childhood, we've grown up with Barbie dolls in hand. What we didn’t know then was that if Barbie was a real woman, she would topple over. She would have stood 6 feet tall and weighed 101 pounds, wearing a size 4 with a bust of 39”, waist of 19” and 33” hips. It is doubtful that Barbie even knew what good food was. Even in department stores and boutiques throughout the United States, store mannequins contribute to the myth. The average mannequin is 6 feet tall and wears a size 6. With a size 34” bust, 23” waist and 34” hips, it is no wonder even mannequins make us feel slightly inadequate.

With society dictating what is beautiful, combined with these websites and Thinspiration photos, eating disorders are running rampant. Sadly though, these seemingly adult 'life decisions' can cause major health problems. Bulimia alone can result in ulcerations of the mouth, esophagus and stomach, tooth decay, electrolyte imbalances, heart failure and even death. A lifestyle marked by eating disorders can oftentimes be a death wish.  

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So what's the bottom line here?

Statistics say that “Without treatment, up to twenty percent (20%) of people with serious eating disorders die. With treatment, that number falls to two to three percent (2-3%).” The internet and social media sites, though progressive platforms for bringing people together, can also fuel the fire for destructive thoughts and behaviors. We have the ability every day to share thoughts, items and photos on social media sites. Consider what you share. What may seem harmless to you could prove destructive to the wrong eyes. It's our job as women to uplift each other. We have the opportunity to share the message that we are not slaves to our bodies OR society's expectations of what the body 'should' look like. It's time for a better message to go viral - the message that BEAUTY IS MORE THAN SKIN DEEP.

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