I'm looking at pictures from before christmas in december. I was so f*cking skinny.
-- coffeeandhipbones, Tumblr
Kate leads a double life. Offscreen, she's a tall, slender, and soft-spoken 17-year-old from Utah, who describes herself as "super awkward" and yet fantasizes about becoming a famous runway model in New York City. Onscreen, she's the confident champion of a secretive community of teenage girls who celebrate ghoulish thinness, relish photos of emaciated women, and furtively share tips about how to stave off hunger.
Kate, whose last name and Tumblr URL have been withheld to protect her identity, is a guru of "thinspo" (short for "thinspiration"). That odd marriage of clever wordplay and disturbing mindset is typical of this underground network of young, female diarists on Tumblr, the image-laden micro-blogging platform popular with teenagers. This codependent sisterhood of bloggers uses Tumblr for one sole purpose: to lose extreme and unhealthy amounts of weight.
"Most days I feel like what I'm doing could be way too much," Kate told the Huffington Post. "I know that if I stay on a very dangerous path, that it could kill me within a year easily, if not sooner. But at the same time, I feel like if I set a goal, I have to reach it. I'm pretty torn about it most days, but I've never really felt bad enough that I wanted to stop."
Like most thinspo devotees, Kate broadcasts her starting weight ("SW: 151.2"), current weight ("CW: 127"), and ultimate goal weight ("UGW: 115") at the top of her Tumblr, along with her height (5'10"). These numbers help Kate, and her 5,000 followers, track her weight loss. According to standards for healthy body mass index, Kate’s ultimate goal weight is more in line with a woman 4'10", or a full foot shorter.
Sixteen-year-old Antonia (last name withheld) also runs a popular, photo-based thinspo blog out of her bedroom. "I like images that show skinny, happy girls," she writes in an email to the Huffington Post. "They look so confident and we can see their bones through their skin. It's the most beautiful thing ever. I also like tips about food or how to ignore hunger."
Do the authors of these blogs recognize that their work is dangerous and disturbing? Frequently, yes. Travel far enough down the rabbit hole of Tumblr's thinspo community -- which often overlaps with the platform's blogs devoted to health and fitness, dubbed "fitblrs" -- and you'll find cautionary signs advising those prone to disordered eating to venture no further. Look for the words "trigger warning," thinspo code indicating that you've reached a pro-anorexia blog (aka pro-"ana" in thinspo speak).
"It's a huge issue," says Claire Mysko, an advisor to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), who has seen a large increase in the number of pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia blogs since Tumblr exploded in popularity last year. "Young people who are prone to disordered eating are generally plagued with insecurity and feeling very isolated, so this world of pro-ana provides a community and a sense of belonging, and validates their experiences. But unfortunately, it does so in a way that promotes incredibly unhealthy and dangerous behavior."
Search around on Tumblr, and you'll find a variety of like-minded thinspo and "fitspo" blogs, absorbed with fashion photographs, food-diary entries, and quotes on willpower and beauty. Every word and image posted declares the user's allegiance to an underweight ideal of beauty.
After launching in 2007, Tumblr has shown incredible growth -- last year, the site generated roughly 15 billion pageviews and attracted 120 million unique visitors each month. What draws teens to Tumblr in the first place -- the ease of sharing and finding bloggers with common interests, a parent-free environment (now that Facebook has become family friendly), and the diary-like feel of its blogs -- also makes the site conducive to health and weight-loss blogs.
And where those blogs are prevalent, it's likely that pro-ana pages that promote disordered eating will thrive, as well. The Tumblr platform is ideal for giving expression to both inspirational and aspirational content -- their intimate and frequently anonymous nature make it comfortable for authors to post highly personal information alongside collages of fashion photographs, in an effort to inspire themselves and other girls who are desperate to shed pounds.
"Tumblr, unfortunately, is the perfect toxic expression of these [preoccupations]," says body-image expert Jess Weiner, author of A Very Hungry Girl and contributing editor for Seventeen Magazine.
Although thinspiration sites have been around nearly as long as the Internet itself -- as far back as 2001, Yahoo! removed roughly 115 sites (pro-ana was the label used at that time) citing violations of the company's terms of service -- the depth and scope of Tumblr's teen thinspo community seems unprecedented. Tumblr-based thinspo blogs are a sort of pro-ana 2.0, forgoing chat rooms and message boards in favor of eerily elegant images, sophisticated design, pop-culture references, private messaging, and street-style sensibility. The blogs are reflections of their creators. For millennial girls -- uber-connected, style savvy, image-conscious, and concerned about uncertain economic futures -- Tumblr offers an intimate, exclusive, and of-the-moment niche community of peers.
The pages are both personal memoirs and public bulletin boards. In one corner, you'll see a "motivational" quote ("I came into 2012 fat but I'm going to leave it skinny," which was 'reblogged,' or shared, more than 1,500 times), and in another, a photo of Victoria's Secret model Miranda Kerr strutting down the catwalk. Melancholy song lyrics once reserved for the private corners of dog-eared notebooks ("Come on skinny love, what happened here? Come on skinny love, just last the year," from Bon Iver's 2008 indie anthem), share the turmoil of the teenage years with thousands of followers.
The poster girl for thinspo bloggers is Cassie, the starry-eyed, anorexic pill-popper of the British teen television drama Skins, whose image pops up all over the thinspo blogosphere. The models most frequently featured are Karlie Kloss and Kate Moss. An iconic black-and-white photograph of Kate in an oversized T-shirt that reads "I Beat Obesity" is a recurring theme, perfectly capturing the ethos of the thinspo community.
High-contrast photographs of collarbones and hipbones are ever-present. Natalie, a 21-year-old thinspo blogger, explains in an email interview, "I have a sort of obsession with hipbones and collarbones. I think they're incredibly beautiful, so I love photos featuring those."
The blogs commonly feature tips for staving off hunger and burning extra calories, like eating ice, chewing gum, and fidgeting. Antonia says that she has yet to come across a blog that takes its interest in weight-loss advice too far.
"I really don't have anything against pro-ana blogs," writes Antonia. "I mean, they help you a lot. Even though it's not good for society and other people, it can help you lose weight so fast that you won't have time to get an eating disorder… And I'm not afraid. I'm ready to risk for perfection."
A "SECRET COMMUNITY"
While the thinspo-blog world traffics in disturbing images and peddles unhealthy habits, it also, sadly, provides comfort to those who participate in it. It is an underground phenomenon, yet it is housed on a platform that is one of the Internet's newest, burgeoning hotspots. It documents addictive and compulsive behavior, yet masks this behavior in the rhetoric of self-control and willpower ("Your stomach isn't grumbling, it's applauding"). It's an open-air secret -- created with an audience in mind yet hidden from the offline world.
"It's like we're all part of this secret community that most of our family and friends don't have the slightest clue about," says Natalie. "Once you read someone's personal blog for so long, you feel like you know them." Natalie exchanges emails and has Skype sessions with girls she met through Tumblr, and explains that they offer encouragement and help each other through days when the temptation to binge feels overwhelming.
Weiner says that the girls' desire for connectivity and support is what fuels the thinspo community. However, Weiner notes, "When you're a young woman and you feel like the connecting point is through the hatred or the shame that you have around your body, that becomes so dangerous."
And it's not just Tumblr, either. A residential eating-disorder treatment center in Chicago reported that between 30 and 50 percent of its teen patients actively use social media to support their eating disorders, according to Eating Disorders Review, a newsletter providing clinical information to eating-disorder professionals.
Antonia, whose family has no idea that she's immersed in the thinspo world, reports spending one to four hours a day reading thinspo blogs on Tumblr, and says that she shares her blog only with friends who are also trying to lose weight. "It's something I enjoy doing on my own," she writes. "It's my secret passion."
Natalie elects not to share her blog with her friends because they know that she has struggled with bulimia in the past and they think that she's recovered. She doesn't want to worry them, she says, because she believes it's something that she can handle on her own. She also keeps information about her diet and weight-loss habits away from her social-networking accounts.
"My Twitter and Facebook are personal," says Natalie, "and I don't want all my classmates and friends to know about the struggles I deal with."
Natalie does use the MyFitnessPal calorie-tracking app on her iPhone, however, which she shares with friends. "I always write in what I eat after my meals," she says.
Bloggers often compare notes using detailed food diaries and screen shots from apps like MyFitnessPal and Calorie Counter, which allow users to track calories consumed and burned during workouts and other activities. These apps also allow social sharing, and bloggers often encourage followers to add them on MyFitnessPal so that they can track each others' progress.
According to Weiner, calorie-tracking apps can magnify the issue of disordered eating insofar as they allow users to keep their behavior secret from their friends, teachers, and parents. She says, "Our phones at the moment, in large part, are a domain of privacy," says Weiner. "It feels private and it can be secretive."
Mysko expresses greater concern for the sharing component of the apps, which she notes NEDA is currently investigating.
"When you talk about sharing the number of calories you consumed in a day, it's adding fuel to the fire because you're in that disordered-eating mentality," she says. "With the technology we see, a lot of this stuff is under the umbrella of healthy apps and [yet] actually, for many, many people, tracking that kind of information and sharing it is very unhealthy."
While the apps aren't problematic when used responsibly by individuals who are striving to achieve a healthy weight, they can easily be misused. According to Mysko, the litmus test for unhealthy use is whether your thoughts about food and weight are affecting your ability to enjoy life, at which point an interest in weight loss becomes potentially dangerous.
"I think all teens need to check in with themselves and say, 'Is looking at this content and reading what someone has eaten everyday or someone's exact diet or fitness plan really feeding something that's unhealthy for me, or is it helpful?' And in most cases, I'm going to say it's going to be pretty unhelpful."
KEEPING IT 'REAL'
Tumblr has quickly established itself as not only a hub for teens, but also the style-obsessed. With its polished design, focus on photos, and primarily young userbase, Tumblr is, in many ways, the new-media version of a fashion magazine.
Kate says that her modeling career and love of fashion drive her dieting and thinspo blogging. She's been modeling since ninth grade -- which is also when she started looking at thinspo -- but this fall, she was discovered by an agent at a prom promotional and, ironically, was signed with an agency that represents "healthy role models" in the media.
"[Modeling and fashion] was one of the original reasons I started looking at thinspo," she says. "I had an interview with a very, very tough agent in ninth grade and they told me that they would be happy to represent me because of my height and my facial structure. But they wanted me to lose 25 pounds. I wasn't overweight at the time -- I was probably average for my height. It was a big shock for me and that's what really pushed me in the direction [of pro-ana]."
And, just as the fashion world has of late embraced street-style photography alongside its runway models, tapping into the public's taste for reality-based entertainment, Tumblr thinspo blogs, which deeply admire the fashion community, have themselves come to feature more and more photos of "real girl" subjects. But it's not always easy to differentiate the models and the real girls.
Just this month, 19-year-old supermodel Karlie Kloss -- whose photo was pulled from Vogue Italia's website last month after it started appearing on pro-anorexia blogs -- began her own Tumblr page. Titled "Kloss Gloss," the blog is devoted to photos of Karlie and her model friends living the fabulous life in New York City, with an authenticity that makes Kloss come across less as a supermodel with a six-figure income and more like a beautiful, glamorous, real (though frighteningly thin) teenage girl.
"I love Karlie Kloss so much, and Miranda Kerr," says Kate. "Victoria's Secret models are almost inhuman -- they're so perfect."
And just as women's magazines often set unrealistic ideal body images for women through their use of photoshop, so too do thinspo blogs, which feature "real girls" that have been doctored and fetishize rib-visible, emaciated subjects.
"I love 'real-girl thinspo,' which is thinspo of girls in everyday situations who aren't models," says Natalie. "It's girls at the beach with their friends, at school, and crossing the street."
One blogger set up the following motivational 'real girl' scenario: "Imagine… you wake up and slip on those size-zero jeans with ease, and they're a little baggy. You put on a plain white tank top, it looks amazing. You go into the bathroom, you brush your hair, which is long and down to your tiny waist. You decide to just put some lipstick and mascara on because you already look beautiful. You leave your house and as you're walking down the street, people turn their heads to look at you. That thought is enough thinspo for me to succeed with this."
'IT'S MY CHOICE'
Teens spend an average of 53 hours per week consuming various media. Unsurprisingly, this can affect their health and self-esteem. A 2011 study conducted by researchers from the University of Haifa in Israel found that the more time teenage girls spend on social-networking sites, the more prone they are to negative body image and eating disorders.
Many thinspo bloggers, like Kate, describe their eating disorder as a "lifestyle choice."
"I feel absolutely horrible introducing someone else to the lifestyle I've created for myself," she says. "But if a girl comes to me and she's trying to shove her toothbrush down the back of her throat, I'm not going to tell her to stop because [...] it's just going to drag her further away."
CJ Pascoe, a sociologist at Colorado College and co-author of the upcoming book Anas, Mias and Wannas: Pro-Ana Communities and Identities Online notes that many pro-ana blogs -- like Kate's -- have co-opted the language of second-wave feminism that touts personal choice and freedom.
"They say, 'You know, this is my lifestyle -- I live an extremely low-calorie lifestyle and this is my choice,'" says Pascoe. "And what goes along with that is all sorts of personality traits that they're very proud of. They have an extreme amount of self-control, dedication and willpower. And when they talk about it, they seem like these extreme athletes who run a hundred miles in a shot or do these 24-hour races.”
Twice, Kate has tested her willpower with the common 50-day "anorexic boot camp" (also known as the "ABC diet"), a highly restrictive nutritional plan that varies daily caloric intake between zero and 500 calories. Once, she completed the 50-day program and lost 25 pounds, but the second time she only made it to day 35 before she was forced to up her food intake.
"I had no energy and I became a major caffeine addict," she recalls. "I couldn't sleep, I couldn't focus in school. It was pretty rough."
Facebook and other social-media companies are starting to take notice of how their platforms are being used to aid disordered eating and unhealthy lifestyles. NEDA is now providing counsel to Facebook, helping the site to establish guidelines with respect to the reporting, flagging and removing of users and groups -- including individual posts and images -- that promote anorexic behavior and self-harm.
"We take it really seriously," says Katherine Barna, communications director for Tumblr. "We're reaching out to experts and activists in this area to understand the best approaches for us to take, and we're still in the process of determining what that is… We're not interested in Tumblr promoting the acceptability of damaging practices."
Despite the popularity of the thinspo community, Mysko notes that many young female bloggers are speaking out against the blogs and a culture that gives rise to these types of disorders.
"Rather than internalizing all these messages about how we're supposed to look, or what we're supposed to eat and how often we're supposed to work out," says Mysko, "teens are actually starting to get frustrated and are talking back to mainstream media."
But for vulnerable girls struggling to figure out who they are, a community of extreme-weight losers, hunger stavers, and collarbone admirers is waiting in the wings, ready to offer words of thinspiration.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.