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.

Photo: ASA
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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA