THE HUNGER BLOGS: A Secret World Of Teenage 'Thinspiration'
I'm looking at pictures from before christmas in december. I was so f*cking skinny.
-- coffeeandhipbones, Tumblr
Kate leads a double life. Offscreen, she's a tall, slender, and soft-spoken 17-year-old from Utah, who describes herself as "super awkward" and yet fantasizes about becoming a famous runway model in New York City. Onscreen, she's the confident champion of a secretive community of teenage girls who celebrate ghoulish thinness, relish photos of emaciated women, and furtively share tips about how to stave off hunger.
Kate, whose last name and Tumblr URL have been withheld to protect her identity, is a guru of "thinspo" (short for "thinspiration"). That odd marriage of clever wordplay and disturbing mindset is typical of this underground network of young, female diarists on Tumblr, the image-laden micro-blogging platform popular with teenagers. This codependent sisterhood of bloggers uses Tumblr for one sole purpose: to lose extreme and unhealthy amounts of weight.
"Most days I feel like what I'm doing could be way too much," Kate told the Huffington Post. "I know that if I stay on a very dangerous path, that it could kill me within a year easily, if not sooner. But at the same time, I feel like if I set a goal, I have to reach it. I'm pretty torn about it most days, but I've never really felt bad enough that I wanted to stop."
Like most thinspo devotees, Kate broadcasts her starting weight ("SW: 151.2"), current weight ("CW: 127"), and ultimate goal weight ("UGW: 115") at the top of her Tumblr, along with her height (5'10"). These numbers help Kate, and her 5,000 followers, track her weight loss. According to standards for healthy body mass index, Kate’s ultimate goal weight is more in line with a woman 4'10", or a full foot shorter.
Sixteen-year-old Antonia (last name withheld) also runs a popular, photo-based thinspo blog out of her bedroom. "I like images that show skinny, happy girls," she writes in an email to the Huffington Post. "They look so confident and we can see their bones through their skin. It's the most beautiful thing ever. I also like tips about food or how to ignore hunger."
Do the authors of these blogs recognize that their work is dangerous and disturbing? Frequently, yes. Travel far enough down the rabbit hole of Tumblr's thinspo community -- which often overlaps with the platform's blogs devoted to health and fitness, dubbed "fitblrs" -- and you'll find cautionary signs advising those prone to disordered eating to venture no further. Look for the words "trigger warning," thinspo code indicating that you've reached a pro-anorexia blog (aka pro-"ana" in thinspo speak).
"It's a huge issue," says Claire Mysko, an advisor to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), who has seen a large increase in the number of pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia blogs since Tumblr exploded in popularity last year. "Young people who are prone to disordered eating are generally plagued with insecurity and feeling very isolated, so this world of pro-ana provides a community and a sense of belonging, and validates their experiences. But unfortunately, it does so in a way that promotes incredibly unhealthy and dangerous behavior."
Search around on Tumblr, and you'll find a variety of like-minded thinspo and "fitspo" blogs, absorbed with fashion photographs, food-diary entries, and quotes on willpower and beauty. Every word and image posted declares the user's allegiance to an underweight ideal of beauty.
After launching in 2007, Tumblr has shown incredible growth -- last year, the site generated roughly 15 billion pageviews and attracted 120 million unique visitors each month. What draws teens to Tumblr in the first place -- the ease of sharing and finding bloggers with common interests, a parent-free environment (now that Facebook has become family friendly), and the diary-like feel of its blogs -- also makes the site conducive to health and weight-loss blogs.
And where those blogs are prevalent, it's likely that pro-ana pages that promote disordered eating will thrive, as well. The Tumblr platform is ideal for giving expression to both inspirational and aspirational content -- their intimate and frequently anonymous nature make it comfortable for authors to post highly personal information alongside collages of fashion photographs, in an effort to inspire themselves and other girls who are desperate to shed pounds.
"Tumblr, unfortunately, is the perfect toxic expression of these [preoccupations]," says body-image expert Jess Weiner, author of A Very Hungry Girl and contributing editor for Seventeen Magazine.
Although thinspiration sites have been around nearly as long as the Internet itself -- as far back as 2001, Yahoo! removed roughly 115 sites (pro-ana was the label used at that time) citing violations of the company's terms of service -- the depth and scope of Tumblr's teen thinspo community seems unprecedented. Tumblr-based thinspo blogs are a sort of pro-ana 2.0, forgoing chat rooms and message boards in favor of eerily elegant images, sophisticated design, pop-culture references, private messaging, and street-style sensibility. The blogs are reflections of their creators. For millennial girls -- uber-connected, style savvy, image-conscious, and concerned about uncertain economic futures -- Tumblr offers an intimate, exclusive, and of-the-moment niche community of peers.
The pages are both personal memoirs and public bulletin boards. In one corner, you'll see a "motivational" quote ("I came into 2012 fat but I'm going to leave it skinny," which was 'reblogged,' or shared, more than 1,500 times), and in another, a photo of Victoria's Secret model Miranda Kerr strutting down the catwalk. Melancholy song lyrics once reserved for the private corners of dog-eared notebooks ("Come on skinny love, what happened here? Come on skinny love, just last the year," from Bon Iver's 2008 indie anthem), share the turmoil of the teenage years with thousands of followers.
The poster girl for thinspo bloggers is Cassie, the starry-eyed, anorexic pill-popper of the British teen television drama Skins, whose image pops up all over the thinspo blogosphere. The models most frequently featured are Karlie Kloss and Kate Moss. An iconic black-and-white photograph of Kate in an oversized T-shirt that reads "I Beat Obesity" is a recurring theme, perfectly capturing the ethos of the thinspo community.