From Tumblr to Tiktok: #Thinspo’s Effect on Body Image

Picture of By Sofia Neumayer Toimil

By Sofia Neumayer Toimil

In the last decades, diet culture has taken a front seat in many people’s lives and has developed tremendously. Myths, tips, and tricks on staying lean and fit have been around forever. However, the growing popularity of crazy meal plans has become increasingly favored. With influencers promoting weight loss gummy bears, supplements, and workout routines, the struggle to reach a certain standard of beauty regarding figure and weight is as prevalent as ever. However, the younger generations have a way of using social media platforms to grow ‘weight loss communities’ of their own, in which motivation, inspiration, workouts, and food ideas are shared between minors. What may be one of the most toxic corners of the internet to ever exist, is finding a new platform on TikTok. What is ‘thinspo’? Since when is it popular? And what is it doing to the young people of today?

The Rise of “Thinspo”

The American blogging and social media app Tumblr was launched in 2007 by David Karp. Like all social media apps it was intended to be a place to share beautiful photography, videos, and stories. However, around 2012 thinspo started to infiltrate the platform. Thinspo is defined as something or someone that serves as motivation for a person seeking to maintain a very low body weight. This took the form of triggering images of severely underweight and starved young individuals, unhealthy advice on calorie consumption, upsetting stories about weight loss and eating disorders.

At the time, Tumblr did not regulate this content, so it was extremely simple to access hundreds of thousands of images and texts promoting unhealthy eating behaviors. This craving for thinness reached its peak around 2014 and 2015 when I was 13 years old.

I remember being on Tumblr and seeing images of severely underweight girls. For someone who was in middle school, this kind of content was disturbing and confusing.

Prior to this, I hadn’t ever thought about weight or figure, and it’s stressful for a child to wrap their head around. When reading into the history of ‘thinspo’ on Tumblr, I was shocked to see that all the websites that pop up when googling about this topic, are simply Tumblr blogs promoting anorexia. Names such as ‘thin-and-frail-tumblr’ appear, ‘thinspo and motivation’, ‘hungry for life’, and ‘thinspo-goals-journey’. It is safe to say that Tumblr has made no effort in blocking, minimizing or controlling this content on their app. In 2012, Instagram aimed to block words such as ‘thigh gap’ and ‘thinspiraton’ from being searched on their app, however, this was inefficient, seeing as users just used altered versions of those banned words. For example, ‘thinspooo’ and ‘thyghgaap’, which often featured even more triggering eating disorder-related content than before.

Where Did Thinspo Move to Now?

Like all apps tend to do, Tumblr’s popularity shrunk over the years, however, apps such as TikTok became more well-known and attractive. Over time, it has become more noticeable that body image issues and eating disorder content have started to find a voice on these new platforms. In December of 2020, the Guardian released an article stating that TikTok is launching an investigation into videos promoting ‘starvation and anorexia’. TikTok tried taking the same steps as Instagram had by banning certain eating disorder-related terminology, however, this ban can easily be swerved by users by simply slightly changing the spelling of the banned vocabulary.

Personally, I had first been shocked by the content on TikTok after seeing a video of a young teenager sharing with her followers what she eats in a day, which amounted to a grand total of 800 calories, which undoubtedly is detrimental to anyone’s health, especially a developing pre-teen. This behavior was promoted on the video as being ‘what must be done’ to lose weight, which is not only false but also an exceptionally dangerous lie to spread. 

The Importance of Minor Safety and Care

Something that has bothered me about this spread of misinformation online not being controlled more excessively by the platforms, is that it cannot be expected of minors, sometimes as young as 12 years old, to tell true from false. It is easy for an impressionable child to take what they see about weight loss and beauty standards as reality, as they cannot understand that calories do not equal weight gain and that starving yourself does not equal a better figure.

Another video I came across which irritated me was one that stated ‘Remember: you aren’t hungry, you are thirsty, drink some water’, and the comments were filled with users commenting how little food they had consumed that day. These videos shape the perceptions of the viewers drastically and can manifest themselves as controlled eating, negative body image, and in the worst case a full-blown eating disorder. 

What Options are There in Blocking Content?

It has been upsetting to see that the button for ‘blocking content from this user’ and ‘block similar content’ is essentially useless. I have been recommended weight loss content from time to time, indicating I longer wish to see these videos, and end up seeing the same videos a few hours later. Furthermore, I have tried actively reporting inappropriate eating disorder content, such as the videos previously mentioned; however, the only ‘reasons’ given to choose from that vaguely fit were ‘misleading information’, ‘violent or graphic content’ and ‘minor safety’. I even added reasoning behind why I was reporting this video, yet each time the video was not taken down. 

What Should Be Done?

These platforms have a responsibility to their younger viewers to protect them from not only false information about eating and diet culture but also from triggering content such as images of underweight individuals. A study conducted in 2015, showed that teenage girls who used social media were significantly more likely to have ‘internalized a drive for thinness’ and to engage in ‘body surveillance’. It is not enough to simply block certain words from being used in hashtags, the issue of weight loss promotion on apps meant for children and young adult entertainment must be treated with more gravity. There should be a specific option button under ‘reporting’, stating that there is ‘false or dangerous weight loss and eating disorder related content’ in the video. This way, this content does not fall under a vague category when being reported, and all videos reported under this new ‘reason’ can be handled with utmost concern, as they always should be.

Cover: Anthony Tran

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