Communication Currents

Dangerously, Anorexia Meets Social Networks

February 1, 2008
Digital Communication & Gaming, Health Communication

Immediately prior to the fall 2007 Milan Fashion Week, fashion label Nolita released its “No Anorexia” billboard and newspaper advertising campaign. The ads featured Isabelle Caro, an emaciated, naked, 70 pound anorexic French model. The advertising timing and message strategy suggest that Nolita aimed to bring attention to the problem of anorexia, a problem the fashion industry is accused of tolerating and at worst promoting and perpetuating. The ad campaign was controversial, and, as a result, turned the media spotlight on anorexia and brought attention to the use of social networking websites to promote this devastating and severe eating disorder.

The provocative billboard images of the 27-year-old French model's naked, skeletal frame were very controversial. Nolita's campaign received media attention throughout the world. Unfortunately, part of the controversy stemmed from the possibility that the images of Caro could result in the unintended consequences of thinspiration--or motivation for a thin ideal--for some women suffering with anorexia.

For those familiar with the advertising industry, it should come as no big surprise that the billboard stirred debate and grabbed media coverage worldwide. After all, Oliviero Toscani was the campaign's photographer. Toscani is famous for the controversial and powerful social awareness images he orchestrated on behalf of the Benetton brand during the height of its “United Colors of Benetton” campaign during the 1980s and 1990s.

Although far removed from the streets of Milan, the campaign and the images of Caro received widespread attention in the U.S. As a media educator, I frequently ask my students to monitor media and share their observations with the class. The “No Anorexia” campaign and its disturbing images became a frequent topic in my undergraduate research methods course. For example, several female students made the interesting observation that media typically personalized the story by referring to the “anorexic model” rather than addressing the issue or the brand more broadly and informatively.

Nolita's “No Anorexia” campaign had favorable consequences for our classroom discussion. Through those discussions, I learned that there are even more troubling online messages about anorexia broadly available to young women. While I was familiar with mental health counseling and peer support websites aimed to assist those suffering with eating disorders, I was surprised to learn that there are a wide range of websites that promote anorexia. I will not justify the pro-anorexia websites, often referred to as pro-ana, by providing their website addresses. However, I will share that the number, scope, and extensive appeals used by the pro-anorexia websites were shocking. But, that's not all!

Dangerously, pro-anorexia sites offer strategies and tips to help others with the disorder disguise their symptoms and become more steadfast in their commitment to anorexia. Observation of the sites suggests that their administrators are so afflicted and suffering from the illness that they are seeking to create a destructive community with similarly afflicted young women. While it is necessary to report that anorexia is not exclusively a disease affecting young women, the pro-anorexia sites and thinspiration pictures online are overwhelmingly those of young women.

Most readers should be familiar with social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. An investigation of Facebook and MySpace reveals that these two sites, heavily used for social networking by teens and young adults, have pro-anorexia groups. Members with personal Facebook or MySpace pages are able to subscribe or join a seemingly endless assortment of user groups aimed to create a community between users with shared interests. Pro-anorexia group members share the goal to support other members to reduce weight, hide their anorexia, or offer motivation to keep from gaining weight.

Fortunately, searches of the leading social networking sites reveals that the anorexia support and recovery communities far outpace the pro-anorexia sites. For example, a Facebook group named “Facebook to remove pro-anorexia and bulimia groups” has more than 1,300 subscribers.

YouTube is another website widely used by young adults for sharing pictures and videos. Pro-anorexia videos are widely available on YouTube. In fact, thinspiration images of celebrities such as Nicole Richie and Mary Kate Olsen are among the most viewed videos produced by the keyword search for “pro-ana” videos. Thinspiration images are likely more impressionable to young women when entertainment media draw attention to the thin bodies of young Hollywood celebrities. Some of the most viewed thinspiration videos posted within the previous year focus on celebrities and have as many as 400,000 to 600,000 views.

There are efforts to restrict pro-anorexia groups from social networking sites. Admittedly, it is difficult to determine whether some groups were pro-anorexia or pro-recovery due to deception strategies used by the pro-anorexia groups. Currently, pro-anorexia groups are still active on Facebook and MySpace.

YouTube's policy allows users to flag and report videos they feel violate community ethical standards. Indeed, several attempts to view pro-anorexia videos produced the following warning message on YouTube, “This video or group may contain content that is inappropriate for some users, as flagged by YouTube's user community. To view this video or group, please verify you are 18 or older by logging in and signing up.”

YouTube's community standards policy will at least help keep potentially disturbing images away from minors. However, the user-to-user file sharing possibilities on the majority of other social networking sites means that peers can continue to share thinspiration images with each other. Fears that adolescents and young adults will model the behaviors and looks of popular celebrity are legitimate. However, research in many areas of adolescent and young adult media research indicate that social norms and pressures from peers within young adults' social networks also have the potential to have significant influence and grave consequences for young adult behaviors.

A Stanford University research study revealed additional evidence of the dangers of pro-anorexia websites. The Stanford study, “Surfing for Thinness,” appearing in Pediatrics reveals that 96% of adolescents with eating disorders learn weight loss or purging strategies from pro-anorexia websites. Conversely, only 46% learn recovery strategies from eating disorder support or recovery websites. The Stanford study also concluded that parents were largely unaware of their child's usage of pro-eating disorder websites.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, between 0.5 to 3.7% of females are estimated to suffer from anorexia at some point in their lifetime. Symptoms of anorexia include resistance to maintaining minimally acceptable weight for age and height, extreme misperception of body image and unreasonable fear of gaining weight, anxiety or distress over emphasis on body image and weight, and irregular or nonexistent menstrual periods among females who have reached puberty.

For more information on eating disorders information and organizations, the National Institute of Mental Health directs its website visitors to the National Library of Medicine. Additionally, the National Eating Disorders Association offers general societal and specific parental prevention tips.

About the author (s)

John C. Tedesco

Virginia Tech

Associate Professor