An image from Tumblr's thinspiration tag.
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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?

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

Harriet Williamson is a freelance journalist and full-time copywriter. She blogs about feminism, fashion and mental health, and tweets @harriepw.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.