Pro-anorexia ‘thinspiration’ photos shouldn’t be banned from social media

First, they came for the thinspiration pictures.

Internet censors are always agitating to ban one thing or another, and it’s rarely the same thing twice. Instead, there’s a revolving carousel of images that are deemed in succession to be beyond even the online pale. Each one seems to present a plausible occasion for, this once, curtailing free speech. The king wearing a pig snout. A swastika. Naked children.

Right now it’s seminaked women that the distressed classes want to cover up—the very images on which the entirety of Western visual culture is founded.

This time, the anxiety about graven images has nothing to do with how they might arouse desire in men. We’re afraid of what’s known as “thinspiration,” it seems, because glamorous photos of very skinny women, together with admiring captions, might arouse self-loathing in women, and thereby inspire self-mortification, and in particular anorexia.

The fact that thinspo, as it’s sometimes called, is sassily named and designed to encourage beholders to reduce their weight—"thin" + "inspiration"—doesn’t help anyone looking to defend it as morally or clinically neutral.  There is no “tasteful pictorial” when it comes to thinspiration. It’s all hard-core.

An exposé of “the hunger blogs”—pro-anorexia, or pro-ana, chronicles that approvingly feature photos of emaciated bodies—ran in February on the Huffington Post. Not long afterward, Tumblr (the hip and artful blogging platform) and Pinterest (the less hip collage-making platform) each took measures to keep thinspiration at bay. Tumblr announced that it would shut down Tumblr blogs that "actively promote self-harm," including eating disorders. And Pinterest changed its terms of service to ban content that seemed to promote anorexia.

But like an underage party that changes locations after busts, the pro-ana, thinspiration crowd migrated to another quarter of the Web when they learned they were unwelcome at Tumblr and Pinterest. Instagram, the iPhone photo-sharing site that was recently acquired by Facebook for $1 billion, this month became home to the pro-ana refugees.

And then Instagram was busted, too. Alexa Chung, the 28-year-old TV personality and would-be It girl, posted a snapshot of herself looking spindly to Instagram this week. Commenters expressed revulsion at the knobbiness of her knees. Chung, who generally aims to seem like a carefree, witty and somewhat nerdy role model in hipster spots like Madewell’s website, replied defensively. (“Ok everyone thanks for the teen angst discussions.”) This only deepened the impression that something was up. Some remembered that not long ago Chung stopped using Twitter because she felt she’d been thin-bashed on that site. “I’m not trying to be thinspo,” she said.

“Not trying to be thinspo”—OK. But does intention matter? Justice Potter Stewart said he couldn’t define obscenity, but he knew it when he saw it, and it seems—for now—thinspiration is the same way.  A newspaper photo of an undernourished victim of famine is not thinspo; an image of a senior citizen, or a man, isn’t either. Something in a true thinspo photo should suggest that its emaciated subject is doing something right—and feeling smug or at least good about it.

Or maybe the image has to make at least one girl skip one meal in order to count. Or maybe if commenters say a skinny girl in a photo looks good—maybe then the image counts as thinspo. Or maybe, as with the Alexa Chung photo, they think she looks bad—then it’s thinspo. Or maybe none of this is what defines thinspiration at all.

In the end, these wily, protean images are just too hard to police. They’re baffling and cunning, like addictive diseases themselves. And pro-ana imagery is especially resistant to control because the disease of anorexia is a disease of excessive control. Successful treatment of eating disorders, like treatment of other addictions, generally entails a surrender, an admission of powerlessness and a willingness to take life easier. Not to crack down harder. Tell an anorexic she must eat, then, and she’ll defy you; tell her she must not look at certain images, and she’ll defy you with redoubled conviction. The move to ban thinspo is unlikely to help sufferers—and may even hurt them, by turning some discussions and illustrations of the disease into prohibited speech, and driving shame and perverse pride in restricted eating even deeper.

And then there’s the problem of the Constitution. Sites like Tumblr and even Facebook’s Instagram are private, if vast, clubs, and they can turn down anything they dislike. But singling out particular kinds of speech as morally unhealthy—deciding that only some images prompt imitation or promote the wrong set of values—seems like a slippery slope. Steroid use and plastic surgery and the so-called “bigorexia” of bodybuilders seem like the tip of the iceberg of potentially unhealthy life choices, too, but no one seems to be moving to rip photos of Alex Rodriguez or Meg Ryan off Pinterest or Instagram.