Views from elsewhere

RSS

Are ultra-thin fashion bloggers encouraging young women to starve themselves?

Many sufferers of eating disorders love to look at the super-skinny stars of fashion blogging on Tumblr and Instagram. Does their adoration encourage their idols to stay thin – and should we do anything about the “thinspo” culture?

An image from Tumblr's thinspiration tag.
An image from Tumblr's thinspiration tag.

Content note: This piece discusses eating disorders and contains images which sufferers may find distressing.

The world of fashion blogging has many upsides. Anyone with access to the internet and an eye for style can get involved. It allows you to enter fashion journalism without slogging away at unpaid internships, and you don’t need to have wealthy parents to support you while you work in London, for free, for an undisclosed amount of time. Hugely successful bloggers such as Bip Ling and Susie Lau have transformed their online blogs into legit fashion careers. Bip Ling has signed with Storm Models, while Susie Lau is a FROW regular in London and New York. Both women were chosen as Company magazine cover girls in 2012. The most popular fashion blogs offer catwalk news, summaries of season style, DIY fashion tips, outfit inspiration and product reviews. Some are like miniature magazines, run by a single writer and style lover. Fashion blogging is the democratic and inclusive route into fashion writing, and the popularity of plus-size blogs demonstrates that many of fashion’s repressive beauty ideals are not immediately transferred to the blogosphere.

However, there are a relatively small number of bloggers who not only conform to the fashion industry’s super-skinny standard, but take it to the extreme. Their bodies are reminiscent not only of the skeletal figures striding the major catwalks, but of young women all over the country who are currently hospitalised or receiving outpatient treatment for anorexia. Whether or not they are healthy themselves, are they encouraging others to be unhealthy? And are their legions of adoring fans encouraging them to stay the way they like to see them, whether or not they are damaging their health by doing so?

When talking about ultra-thin fashion bloggers, there are two examples who spring immediately to mind: Felice Fawn and Violet E Both are wildly popular: Felice Fawn’s “public figure” page has over 178,000 likes on Facebook and she has more than 51,000 Twitter followers. Violet E currently has 90,000 Facebook likes and over 5,000 Instagram followers. Felice Fawn describes herself as a gothic model and blogger, and Violet as a blogger and photographer. Despite their differing approaches to fashion, these two bloggers are united by their super-skinny body shapes. Their pictures regularly end up on pro-anorexic pages on Tumblr and Instagram, and are tagged as “thinspiration” or “thigh gap”. The most-shared image of Felice with the tag “thinspo” can be found on the page of a blog that begins “I have built this website to help inspire me and others to lose weight”. The image has 1,459 “notes”, which includes likes, reblogs and comments.

Violet E offers no written content at all on her blog. She doesn’t talk about how to put outfits together, where she gets her clothes from or how she styles her hair. She doesn’t review products or catwalk trends. Her posts are largely restricted to pictures of herself, an indication that it is these images that generate her following. She’s a Pre-Raphaelite grunge princess, and very, very thin. Her pictures on Facebook are peppered with comments about how her body is “perfection” and how other women wish they were as skinny as her. The occasional comments that encourage her to eat are met with replies from Violet, including “go fuck yourself” and “I hope you die soon”.

 

From Violet E's public Facebook page.

 

MSc student Sophie*, a current ED sufferer, says that she finds the ultra-thin bodies of such bloggers much more upsetting than those of models in fashion magazines, because “they are more like real people, with social lives and drama and success stories”. She adds that “they provide something real and desirable and this can inspire me to keep going, keep restricting, keep vomiting - because it is associated with a glamorous lifestyle, a life that is so interesting that people from around the world want to follow it”.

Ebony Nash, a fashion blogger and English Literature student, describes ultra-thin bloggers as a niche within the blogosphere, although she adds that “there is a correlation between the skinniest ones and their popularity”. Ebony has recovered from her eating disorder, but is clear about the fact she feels triggered by some other bloggers. “Half of me hates her [Violet E] and the other half really admires her – but that’s the sixteen-year-old, eating disordered part of me talking”.

Violet has never spoken about whether or not she suffers, or has suffered, from an eating disorder. By contrast, Felice Fawn has spoken publically about her struggle with anorexia in a blog post entitled “A Response to Weight Critics” (now deleted) and was willing to chat to me for this article. She describes herself as “practically recovered” and says “I know many females struggling with eating disorders who are triggered by larger women and images of bigger bodies, but neither myself or any of these girls would expect larger women/bloggers to censor themselves”.

Felice adds that “trigger warnings and censorship will not solve mental health issues or eating disorders. It's impossible to censor everything in the world that could possibly be a trigger to someone, so it's an unrealistic and irrational expectation”. She advocates the use of helpful informational links on super-skinny content, such as “links to scientific research, care centres and help forums instead of just ‘trigger warning’” in order to raise awareness.

Felice does not currently provide either trigger warnings or links to information about eating disorders on her underwear snaps, where her protruding ribs and hipbones take prominence. She’s right that “skinny bloggers should be treated like human beings, and should be allowed to live their lives just like anyone else” but to refuse to acknowledge the effect that certain content has on others seems to run counter to the “compassion, empathy and understanding” that Felice calls for during our interview.

During my eight-year struggle with anorexia and bulimia, I oscillated between hiding my body beneath layers of baggy clothing and flaunting my thigh gap and protruding ribs, in the hope of receiving words of admiration and encouragement from my peers. Both Felice Fawn and Violet E are gaining this validation from their many thousands of followers, every single day. Eventually I was called out on my behaviour by a friend, who told me that the pictures I posted to social media were triggering and upsetting to her. I was hurt and angry at first, but I realised that she was absolutely right to challenge me. My sickness and the sharing of images of my emaciated body were hurting others. I had to take responsibility for this.

Grace is a 16-year-old who has experienced the damaging effect that eating disorders can have on a family for most of her life. With regard to Violet and Felice, she says “it’s sickening to see so many comments glorifying their skeletal forms on her social media accounts; anyone can access their pictures without any kind of trigger warning, there’s no sensitivity to people suffering or recovering from eating disorders”.

Violet E's response to a critic of her weight

Leanne Thorndyke, Head of Communications at the eating disorder charity b-Eat, says that “there is nothing wrong with celebrating your body and being body confident. It is skeletal or emaciated images which can be so distressing and triggering for eating disorder sufferers". She says images on some fashion blogs “are not different to the images we find on thinspiration sites”. 

Fashion bloggers who suffer from eating disorders should be encouraged to seek professional help, like anyone else. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and to remain a sufferer is very dangerous. Whether super-skinny bloggers intend to present anorexia in a glamorous light or not, it’s clear their images are attracting a certain fan base and finding their way on to pro-anorexia sites or Tumblrs. It is hard to control where images end up once they are released on to the internet, but it only takes a quick Google search to find a wealth of thinspo and pro-ana sites hosting content from Felice and Violet. If you are aware your content is being used in a potentially harmful way, does it becomes your responsibility to combat this?

There is another dimension to this: the feedback fashion bloggers get from their adoring public. It is harder to convince someone with an eating disorder to change their unhealthy habits when they are receiving thousands of “likes” for their super-skinny pictures.

So what now? To say that certain people shouldn’t be allowed to show their bodies on the internet raises the thorny question of censorship. It seems counterintuitive and repressive in the extreme to ban those with certain body shapes from expressing themselves online. People with anorexia, bulimia or other eating disorders should not be shamed into hiding themselves, whether they are high-profile bloggers or not, but it’s important to consider the effect that ultra-thin content has on those who view it.

Facebook’s community guidelines state that content that promotes self-harm, including eating disorders, will be removed. In 2012, Tumblr placed a ban on “blogs that glorify or promote anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders; self-mutilation; or suicide.” Instagram has since made the hashtags “proanorexia”, “probulimia” and “thinspiration” unsearchable.

The good this has done is entirely debatable (not least because it is hard to decide what is a a pro-ana image, and what is merely a photograph of a thin person). Leanne Thorndyke of b-Eat says: “We remain concerned about the ease with which users can still post, search and access photos that promote starvation and impossible body standards. It’s worrying that with the powerful medium of social networking, people are able to easily access images that encourage the individual to believe that an eating disorder is a lifestyle choice and to avoid treatment.” She adds that “individuals should be pointed towards pro recovery sites, providing acceptance and support throughout society so that these alternative sites are no longer the only refuge a person feels they can seek”.

Popular bloggers are in a privileged position in that their large fan bases allow them to influence others, for good or otherwise. I hope that fashion bloggers who are currently suffering from eating disorders get the help that they need, and in the meantime consider taking a more sensitive approach to the content they post. There’s nothing wrong with skinny, as long as it isn’t achieved through sickness. 

*name has been changed