THE HUNGER BLOGS: A Secret World Of Teenage 'Thinspiration'
High-contrast photographs of collarbones and hipbones are ever-present. Natalie, a 21-year-old thinspo blogger, explains in an email interview, "I have a sort of obsession with hipbones and collarbones. I think they're incredibly beautiful, so I love photos featuring those."
The blogs commonly feature tips for staving off hunger and burning extra calories, like eating ice, chewing gum, and fidgeting. Antonia says that she has yet to come across a blog that takes its interest in weight-loss advice too far.
"I really don't have anything against pro-ana blogs," writes Antonia. "I mean, they help you a lot. Even though it's not good for society and other people, it can help you lose weight so fast that you won't have time to get an eating disorder… And I'm not afraid. I'm ready to risk for perfection."
A "SECRET COMMUNITY"
While the thinspo-blog world traffics in disturbing images and peddles unhealthy habits, it also, sadly, provides comfort to those who participate in it. It is an underground phenomenon, yet it is housed on a platform that is one of the Internet's newest, burgeoning hotspots. It documents addictive and compulsive behavior, yet masks this behavior in the rhetoric of self-control and willpower ("Your stomach isn't grumbling, it's applauding"). It's an open-air secret -- created with an audience in mind yet hidden from the offline world.
"It's like we're all part of this secret community that most of our family and friends don't have the slightest clue about," says Natalie. "Once you read someone's personal blog for so long, you feel like you know them." Natalie exchanges emails and has Skype sessions with girls she met through Tumblr, and explains that they offer encouragement and help each other through days when the temptation to binge feels overwhelming.
Weiner says that the girls' desire for connectivity and support is what fuels the thinspo community. However, Weiner notes, "When you're a young woman and you feel like the connecting point is through the hatred or the shame that you have around your body, that becomes so dangerous."
And it's not just Tumblr, either. A residential eating-disorder treatment center in Chicago reported that between 30 and 50 percent of its teen patients actively use social media to support their eating disorders, according to Eating Disorders Review, a newsletter providing clinical information to eating-disorder professionals.
Antonia, whose family has no idea that she's immersed in the thinspo world, reports spending one to four hours a day reading thinspo blogs on Tumblr, and says that she shares her blog only with friends who are also trying to lose weight. "It's something I enjoy doing on my own," she writes. "It's my secret passion."
Natalie elects not to share her blog with her friends because they know that she has struggled with bulimia in the past and they think that she's recovered. She doesn't want to worry them, she says, because she believes it's something that she can handle on her own. She also keeps information about her diet and weight-loss habits away from her social-networking accounts.
"My Twitter and Facebook are personal," says Natalie, "and I don't want all my classmates and friends to know about the struggles I deal with."
Natalie does use the MyFitnessPal calorie-tracking app on her iPhone, however, which she shares with friends. "I always write in what I eat after my meals," she says.
Bloggers often compare notes using detailed food diaries and screen shots from apps like MyFitnessPal and Calorie Counter, which allow users to track calories consumed and burned during workouts and other activities. These apps also allow social sharing, and bloggers often encourage followers to add them on MyFitnessPal so that they can track each others' progress.
According to Weiner, calorie-tracking apps can magnify the issue of disordered eating insofar as they allow users to keep their behavior secret from their friends, teachers, and parents. She says, "Our phones at the moment, in large part, are a domain of privacy," says Weiner. "It feels private and it can be secretive."
Mysko expresses greater concern for the sharing component of the apps, which she notes NEDA is currently investigating.
"When you talk about sharing the number of calories you consumed in a day, it's adding fuel to the fire because you're in that disordered-eating mentality," she says. "With the technology we see, a lot of this stuff is under the umbrella of healthy apps and [yet] actually, for many, many people, tracking that kind of information and sharing it is very unhealthy."
While the apps aren't problematic when used responsibly by individuals who are striving to achieve a healthy weight, they can easily be misused. According to Mysko, the litmus test for unhealthy use is whether your thoughts about food and weight are affecting your ability to enjoy life, at which point an interest in weight loss becomes potentially dangerous.
"I think all teens need to check in with themselves and say, 'Is looking at this content and reading what someone has eaten everyday or someone's exact diet or fitness plan really feeding something that's unhealthy for me, or is it helpful?' And in most cases, I'm going to say it's going to be pretty unhelpful."
KEEPING IT 'REAL'
Tumblr has quickly established itself as not only a hub for teens, but also the style-obsessed. With its polished design, focus on photos, and primarily young userbase, Tumblr is, in many ways, the new-media version of a fashion magazine.
Kate says that her modeling career and love of fashion drive her dieting and thinspo blogging. She's been modeling since ninth grade -- which is also when she started looking at thinspo -- but this fall, she was discovered by an agent at a prom promotional and, ironically, was signed with an agency that represents "healthy role models" in the media.