Pinterest Joins Battle Against 'Pro-Ana' Postings
Pinterest, the online social sharing "pinboard" that has quickly become one of the most popular services on the internet, is just the latest major website to make an attempt to rid itself of pro-anorexia ("pro-ana") and pro-bulimia ("pro-mia") content.
Pinterest made changes to its "acceptable use policy" effective April 6 to specifically prohibit posting content that, "creates a risk of harm, loss, physical or mental injury, emotional distress, death, disability, disfigurement, or physical or mental illness to yourself [or] to any other person ..." Previous Pinterest policy only banned, among other things, content that "promotes illegal or harmful activities ..."
In February, the micro-blogging and social networking site Tumblr banned "self-harm" blogs that promote behaviors such as anorexia, bulimia, self-mutilation and suicide. Tumblr had faced the same kind of criticism that was being directed at Pinterest, and faces the same ongoing difficulties in keeping itself free of pro-anorexia content.
Pinterest had come under criticism from some quarters for doing nothing to curb content that appears to condone or even encourage disordered eating behaviors, dangerous dieting practices and extreme weight loss. The site and its policies naturally came under increasing scrutiny as Pinterest’s popularity grew at a meteoric rate previously unseen in the history of the internet. In less than two years, Pinterest’s audience burgeoned from its few thousand inaugural users to more than 11 million unique monthly visitors. It’s now the third most popular social network on the web.
In the United States, the audience for Pinterest is overwhelmingly female; women and girls make up 83 percent of the site’s U.S. users. Since anorexia and bulimia afflict females in a similarly disproportionate way - women and girls account for about 90 percent of the U.S. population that suffers from eating disorders - some mental health professionals and activists were incensed that Pinterest seemed to be doing nothing to prevent itself from being used as a platform to spread pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia messages to its female base. The pro-ana community claims that behaviors like self-starvation or self-induced vomiting to control weight are legitimate "lifestyle" choices that should not be questioned by outsiders.
The visual nature of Pinterest - users "pin" photos to their pages that relate to topics that interest them - often made pro-anorexia pinboards quite stark illustrations of pro-ana ideals. Typically, they primarily featured pictures of very thin or emaciated women and girls to serve as so-called "thinspiration," or "thinspo." From commercial photos of super-thin models to home pictures of anorexic teens proudly showing off protruding bones, thinspiration collections on Pinterest were clearly designed to encourage others to pursue very unhealthy eating habits.
When a user enters "thinspiration" or "thinspo" as a search term on Pinterest today, she or he gets the following message in lieu of actual content: "Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that, if left untreated, can cause serious health problems or could even be life-threatening. For treatment referrals, information, and support, you can always contact the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237."
Whether Pinterest sufficiently polices against pro-anorexia content, or even whether it effectively can, however, is open to question. Pro-anorexia users can avoid having their pages blocked simply by tagging their photo collections with trigger terms like "thinspiration" or "thinspo." Even more disturbing, a pro-anorexia Pinterest board can even masquerade as one that is fighting against eating disorders, while still featuring basically the same photographic content. Pinterest is certainly not unique in this regard, however, since this kind of deception has been used on any number of other websites, blogs and social media pages for years.
Attempting to stem pro-anorexia messages on social media or "Web 2.0" sites like Pinterest and Tumblr is simply another iteration of the attempts that occurred during the 1990s to ban or block pro-ana speech from bulletin boards, chat rooms and free web hosting sites during the 1990s. As with many people who had an interest in topics and behaviors that were long seen as deviant or obscure and that were formerly only practiced very secretively, pro-anorexia advocates found the internet to be a place where they could talk openly yet anonymously about their interests and beliefs. Eating disorders can be very isolating to those whose suffer from them, and it’s no coincidence that the pro-ana community began coalescing online practically from the advent of the internet.
In any case, regardless of the existence or absence of sites specifically intended to be pro-ana/pro-mia or to offer thinspiration, pictures of extremely thin women are not hard to come by on the internet. It’s also true that, even before the promotion of eating disorders as a lifestyle, the pre-internet media were promoting them tacitly or even unintentionally by offering a very distorted view of women’s bodies and unrealistic or unhealthy ideals of physical perfection.
Unlike so much of both the online and offline media, Caring Online strives to deliver positive messages about body image and eating. In addition to offering information and resources about eating disorders and treatment for them, Caring Online has stories, articles and essays intended to inspire healthy behaviors and attitudes toward food, dieting and exercise.