As the Internet became a worldwide phenomenon and a household essential, another more disturbing trend began to take hold: the rise of online communities encouraging and glorifying eating disorders. Under names such as “pro-ana” and “pro-ED,” these sites offer weight loss tips as well as images of ultra-thin or emaciated women, held up as models to aspire to. In the age of social media, these movements found even more venues. On networks like Tumblr, Twitter, and Pinterest, users continued to share these images along with potentially harmful advice under hashtags like #proanorexia and #thinspiration.
These trends are far from innocuous. A 2012 report noted that online pro-ana and “thinspiration” content – along with its abbreviation, “thinspo” – can reshape the way that people see themselves, normalizing an impossible and dangerous body ideal. And social networks have begun to fight back. In 2012, photo sharing site Instagram announced a policy prohibiting accounts that glorify eating disorders or self-harm, and it banned hashtags such as #proanorexia and #thinspiration. While the new rules helped prevent users from congregating around these tags, many simply began to use other eating disorder-related hashtags that hadn’t been blocked.
So what does this ongoing fixation on dangerous weight loss look like today? We’ve studied 330,000 #thinspo or #fitspo Instagram posts in the U.S. from 2012 to 2015, mapping which states and cities show the greatest activity surrounding these hashtags. “Fitspo” is a more recent movement intended to focus on overall health rather than weight loss alone, although others have expressed concern that this could encourage disordered eating as well. “Thinspo” posts had to be located using newly adopted variants such as #thinspooo and #thinspooooo. Read on to see which parts of the country focus on fitness and which just trend toward thin.
Of the five states with the greatest per capita frequency of thinspo-tagged posts on Instagram, only one – Kentucky – is among the five most obese states in the country. In fact, two of these top thinspo states fall into the bottom 50 percent of states ranked by the prevalence of obesity. There appears to be very little connection between a state’s overall weight and its interest in thinspo images, suggesting that these weight anxieties and urges for thinness may not be grounded in actual struggles with weight.
This pattern also appears among the top 10 major cities with the most thinspo-tagged posts. While Los Angeles takes first place, the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana area falls in the bottom 25 percent of 189 metropolitan areas ranked by the prevalence of obesity. Other cities show a similar ranking: the Orlando-Kissimmee, Eugene-Springfield, and Sacramento-Arden Arcade-Roseville areas all fall into the bottom half of these metropolitan areas. Compared to other areas, these cities aren’t dealing with high levels of obesity – only high levels of interest in “thinspiration” imagery.
When it comes to #fitspo images, a somewhat different pattern appears. It’s no surprise that image-conscious coastal areas such as California, Hawaii, and Florida, famed for their beaches, would be host to the highest levels of fitness interest – as well as New Jersey, home of the titular shore. And these states aren’t just talking the talk: According to Gallup polls, four of the five top states also fall into the upper half of states ranked by the percentage of people who exercise three or more days per week.
But compared to their #fitspo interest, the exercise habits of the top cities are somewhat more mixed. Some, such as the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, Austin-Round Rock, and Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana metropolitan areas, fall into the upper third of major cities frequently exercising. Others, such as the Chicago-Naperville-Joliet, Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, and Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington areas, fall into the lowest third.
We’ve also included a map of the proportion of people in each state who report being obese, defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater. Of the five states with the highest prevalence of obesity – Mississippi, West Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky – only one, Kentucky, appears on the list of top five states most interested in #thinspo tags, and none appear among the top five most interested in #fitspo. The ongoing high prevalence of obesity in these southern states have been linked to a lack of options for physical activity.
A comparison of #fitspo mentions and state obesity prevalence also supports a connection between physical activity and weight. At one end, California has the most per capita mentions of #fitspo – but also one of the lowest obesity levels in the country. At the other end, states with some of the greatest obesity prevalence mention #fitspo with decreasing frequency. In general, high levels of #fitspo mentions appear to be associated with lower prevalence of obesity in a state – their fitness interest may have a real impact on their waistlines.
Getting Help for an Eating Disorder
Setting fitness goals can have a positive effect on health and well-being. But when people simply want to be thin at any cost, the health consequences are often ignored. “Thinspo” imagery can set unrealistic expectations, creating needless anxieties over weight and encouraging unhealthy eating behaviors. Yet even as social networks struggle with how to handle this content, many people have instead chosen to take a more positive direction, posting pictures documenting their newfound healthy habits and their recovery from eating disorders. Disordered eating habits don’t have to control your life. If you or someone you know are struggling with an eating disorder, contact PsychGuides.com today at . With appropriate treatment, there’s hope for a healthy recovery from eating disorders.
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After limiting our parameters to posts from the U.S. from January 2012 to February 2015, a collection of 330,000 image posts on Instagram featuring “fitspo” and “thinspo” hashtags was downloaded. These included “#fitspo,” “#thinspoo,” “#thinspooo,” “#thinspoooo,” “#thinspooooo,” “#thinspoooooo,” “#thinspooooooo,” and “#thinspoooooooo.” Variations on the “thinspo” tags were used as search terms because Instagram prevents usage of the original “#thinspo” hashtag. The geographic location data attached to these posts were then sorted into the nearest U.S. states and cities.
State population data were taken from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 state population estimates. City population data was obtained from the 2013 American Community Survey estimates. State obesity prevalence was drawn from the 2013 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System response set.
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