Recently, “thinspo” and “thinspiration”-themed Tumblr and Pinterest content has come under close scrutiny. Both online communities have banned the controversial content, usually self-posted photographs of anorexic women taking on the guise of “role models.” The viewers are generally girls who literally seek inspiration from these pictures, to give them a sense of solidarity as they slowly starve themselves. The ban has been at most nominally successful, with thinspo content still popping up on both sites. Free-speech issues aside, the backlash against thinspo resurfaces the same body issues that are endemic to modern western culture, wrapped up in a shiny new facade. As a woman, thinspo pictures disturb me, and my first reaction is to look for someone to blame: men? Hollywood? Tumblr? But the issue is more complicated than the ease of scapegoating would imply. It’s the product of a social system that produces this images of physical beauty, people (men and women) who believe the ideal, and society that still can’t balance what is healthy with what is idealized.
Academics often talk about the “male gaze.” In this case, it’s the female gaze that’s actually coming under critique. After all, it’s these girls and women themselves who post and view, rather than men. And while the “male gaze” certainly informs and reinforces the image of an ideal (i.e. thin) woman that these sites portray, in the overwhelming majority of the cases, it’s not men who post or view these pictures. The whole point is to create a community of girls and women who are going through the same self-destructive process: for women, by women. Blame the patriarchy all you want, comrades, but it’s not a clear-cut gender war. That said, according to the article “‘Thinspo’ Content Continues to Emerge Despite Ban From Online Communities Like Tumblr, Pinterest,”’ these online communities blossom out of a sense of shame and isolation. As much as women are encouraged to be beautiful and thin, it’s still not socially acceptable to literally starve yourself to get there. Or at least, not do it publicly. The shame isn’t just a function of the public sphere, of course; it’s internal as much as external.
Body issues are a stereotypical girl problem, though having testicles doesn’t actually preclude feeling uncomfortable in one’s own skin. Problems with body image pervade modern culture. Every woman I know, and a few men have touched on their body issues with me at some point. The most attractive girl I know has serious body issues. I looked at “thinspirational” pictures doing research for this article, and while I consider myself to be pretty comfortable in my own skin, the pictures are perversely “inspirational” even to me because I still feel (will probably always feel) that if I were thinner, I would be more desirable. There’s more to self-actualization than physical desirability but we all look for obvious markers of success: thinness, wealth, whatever and take them as indicators of happiness. As one of my (male) friends said, “Being thin is like playing life on easy mode.” It’s why Wash. U. has the “Love Your Body” campaign, and “Fat-Talk Free Week” every year; it’s not a problem that will conceivably go away entirely, only one that is insidious enough to demands our attention and dialogue. Even when we’re all brains floating in vats, we’ll be constantly self-scrutinizing the size of our medulla oblongatas. In the end, everyone wants to be the best, to be the most liked, the most desired, and feels inadequate about some aspect of his or her life; the relative thickness of one’s body is something that can be altered and controlled, healthily and unhealthily.
So what’s a society to do? It’s easy to speak in platitudes, to scold the modeling industry or tell the websites to enforce stricter standards on content. You could blame men for ostensibly desiring dangerously thin women, or deride thinspired women for deliberately starving themselves. You can stress personal responsibility, or treat thinspired girls as victims of their environment. The problem is that there is no easy solution; social networking sites just bring latent problems out into the open. At this point, the most important thing is that there is a dialogue about body image, both in terms of self-image and societal expectations.