For better or for worse, the Internet allows people who share niche interests to form communities, regardless of where they live.
This is certainly the case for suffers of eating disorders. Ever since the birth of the Internet, Pro-Ana, Pro-Mia and Pro-ED (Pro–Eating Disorder) have emerged, and as the Internet has developed, these communities have developed too, onto user-generated platforms like blogs and Tumblr, and into social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.
From the outsider's perspective, there are two schools of thought with regards to online communities dedicated to eating disorders. The first is that these communities allow sufferers of the disease to communicate and share their stories with people who understand and, ergo, find the support they need to recover. The second is that these communities endorse and promote dangerous behaviour to susceptible people.
The insider's perspective is more terrifying. This feature, by The Telegraph, interviews the editor of a pro-anorexia website who sees her eating disorder as a "lifestyle choice" instead of a disease, and provides her readers with "tips, tricks and information" to cope with the dangerous side-effects of being unhealthily thin, namely hair loss and malnutrition. This feature, by Newsweek, interviews an eating disorder sufferer who insists "These sites provided a setting where I could talk about the illness without people trying to fix me or tell me that what I'm doing is horrible, disgusting, maladaptive", but who does not indicate whether these sites helped her recover or not.
The Telegraph feature points to a study by Dr. John Morgan, a consultant psychiatrist who chairs the Royal College of Psychiatrists's eating disorder section, in which 120 patients were interviewed to determine that pro-ED websites "reinforces their grasp of their existing behaviour, so people who are losing weight lose more; people who are purging purge more. Second, it teaches new behaviours: they discover things they've never thought of before, such as water-loading [using liquids to stave off hunger pangs or increase apparent weight] to deceive your parents or your GP."
If we assume that in most cases pro-ED online communities hurt rather than help the sufferers of eating disorders, then it follows that we should believe these websites should be policed. The problem then is that the Internet is oh, you know, impossible to control.
However, social media websites can be policed. Facebook and Instagram employ moderators who review complaints about content, determine whether said content violates the community's guidelines or the law, and act accordingly.
Both sites have policies that outlaw the promotion of self-harm. Here's Instagram's: "While Instagram is a place where people can share their lives with others through photographs and videos, any account found encouraging or urging users to embrace anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders; or to cut, harm themselves, or commit suicide will result in a disabled account without warning. We believe that communication regarding these behaviors in order to create awareness, come together for support and to facilitate recovery is important, but that Instagram is not the place for active promotion or glorification of self-harm."
According to the aforementioned article by Newsweek, in 2008, Facebook dedicated a team of employees to locating and removing pro-ED groups. Similarly, in 2012 Instagram banned #thinspo, the hashtag users were posting pro-ED content under.
However, these communities are dedicated, and when one hashtag is banned, users will simply create more – usually more abstract and harder to detect – under which to host their content and converse among each other. The Telegraph feature even suggests that the more secretive the community is, the more desirable it is to be part of, ergo, the more impactful the messages proliferated by that community are.
However, banning easy access to obvious pro-ED communities will, surely, reduce the number of people who become members of these communities by the simple fact that less-dedicated, and therefore fewer, people will scour dark depths to find hidden hashtags.
Right now on Instagram, under the hashtag #mia (short for bulimia) there are over 7, 000, 000 images. While many of them are harmless, more still actively promote various forms of self harm, particularly eating disorders. One, for example, has the text "The smaller your waist the weaker his knees" scrawled on top of a picture of an emaciated young woman. Sure there's a content advisory warning, but one dismissive click and you're exposed to everything.
The treatment of the female body by Instagram is problematic. They have removed harmless photos of women for the fact they depict pubic hair (natural), menstrual blood (natural), and excess fat (natural). I've theorized that the ideal way women are represented on Instagram suits the way in which the biggest brands and Instagram itself use or will use the platform for revenue. Even if this reading is too conspiratorial, surely it follows that if innocuous images of women like this are being removed by Instagram, dangerous images that depict unhealthy women should also be removed by Instagram.
The issues of online pro-ED communities and the online representation of women are incredibly nuanced. However, the ultimate aim should be to represent healthy women. By removing the hashtag #mia, Instagram would take us one step closer to achieving this.
We contacted Instagram for comment for this article, but had not heard back at the time of publication.
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