When Kyra Wiest was 11, she began starving herself. She wanted to be like her thin mother, who obsessively worked out to maintain a slim body. Plus, all the prettiest girls on TV shows and in magazines were skinny too.
Over the next decade, Wiest dealt with depression, eating disorders and an abusive relationship.
She also became addicted to blogs filled with photos of skeletal women, tips for throwing up and extreme diets. Wiest, now 21, knows she needs help, but her insurance company won’t cover her treatments.
“I want to get better, but I can’t afford it,” Wiest says.
Wiest is part of an alarming problem: Over the past two decades, a growing community of young adults has become hooked on blogs that glamorize eating disorders. They now bond on social media sites under hashtags like #proana, which stands for pro-anorexia, and #promia for pro-bulimia.
But despite efforts by the likes of Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram to crack down on the disturbing content they are hosting, nothing will work until more money is put into prevention, research and counseling, eating disorder experts say.
“We absolutely talk about Internet usage with out patients,” says Ana Ramirez, who provides therapy at the Eating Disorders Center for Research and Treatment. These unhealthy communities prevent people from seeking treatment or trigger recovering people to relapse, she says. Most social networking and pro-eating-disorder sites are blocked for Ramirez’s patients.
Since last year, these popular websites have added public service announcements with links to counseling and prevention resources when users try to search for this content. They also revised policies to allow them to suspend accounts.
Wiest’s own Tumblr account was recently deactivated because it contained thinspo—images of emaciated women meant to inspire bloggers to get thinner. Wiest has no plans of remaking it.
She’s too scared of being sucked back.
But some experts believe censorship does more harm than good. One of the problems is that as soon as censors crack down, new cracks emerge.
Hashtags, the easy way to search topics, keep changing. Though Instagram removed common hashtags like #proana and #promia, new ones have sprung up and remain undetected. They attract an “underground” audience with alternative spellings like #proanna and #promiaa.
Similarly, Tumblr and Pinterest have tried shutting down individual accounts, but bloggers find ways to come back. They simply make new accounts and stop tagging posts with these common hashtags, choosing to reconnect with followers through private messaging.
Censorship becomes a game of whack-a-mole, according to Danah Boyd, who studies how young people use social media. Blogs that are shut down always find ways to pop up again, says Boyd. This makes it harder to do interventions and help.
Censorship also shames people who are legitimately sick, according to Arielle Bair, social worker and eating disorder survivor. Their feelings get invalidated, which can make their illness worse, she said.
And yet, The National Eating Disorder Association wants to make these sites less visible. They lead to more trouble than help, says Stephanie Dawber, helpline supervisor for NEDA. “We’re currently working with Google, so when people are googling for this kind of content, NEDA comes up before triggering sites come up.”
Despite conflicting views on censorship, all recovery advocates and experts agreed that social media companies can’t solve the problem alone. These professionals say that prevention measures such as school-based educational programs and access to treatment are a must.
Developing a healthy body image starts in the home, according to Laura Cipullo, a registered dietician specializing in eating disorders. “If you talk about how your thighs are too big, your children will look at theirs too,” she said.
More funding for research is also necessary, according to Matt Wetsel, who does advocacy work for the Eating Disorders Coalition. “Until we have more funding, insurance companies will continue to find every excuse to deny treatment,” he says.
Weist is waiting till then. For now, she is trying to recover by herself. She avoids Tumblr and fitness apps that trigger her to over-exercise or purge.
“I hope schools start teaching what body positivity and healthy eating means to young kids,” said Weist. “It could save so many kids from what I’ve gone through.”
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