March 1, 2013 -- Thinspo –short for "thinspiration" – is a common term used to tag images and ideas posted on social media sites meant to encourage women to stay thin or become even thinner.
Women of all shapes and sizes visit thinspo blogs, post thinspired messages and tweet out related images daily. They use thinspro as a motivational tool, much the same as tacking inspirational notes and photos onto a refrigerator or mirror.
But increasingly, the movement has become dominated by anorexics who view their quest for extreme thinness as a lifestyle choice rather than an illness. A growing number of pro anorexic or "pro ana" sites and blogs have rallied around thinspo as a kind of support group for those who have no interest in recovery.
The 2008 International Internet Trends Study found that the number or pro ana and pro bulimia -- or "pro mia" -- sites increased 470 percent in the past two years. One of the top thinspo sites, prettythin.com, receives an average of 280,000 page views per day, according to the web analytics site Alexa.com.
Claire Mysko manages Pround2bme.org, the National Eating Disorder Association's online community that offers support for those with eating disorders. She said the women who fixate on thinspo content see it as ticket to happiness and acceptance.
"They are searching for a connection, and in some ways they are finding it but unfortunately in a way that helps them maintain their disordered mindset," she said.
And she warned, exposure to thinspo can be toxic.
She pointed to studies that found that girls reported lower self-esteem, perceived themselves as overweight were driven to exercise, think worse about their appearance and feel more depressed, guilty and shamed even after a single viewing of thinspo-themed content.
"Vulnerable young women and girls get caught up in the idea that becoming ever more emaciated is the answer to all the other problems in their lives," she said. "This is especially true for those who already have weight and shape concerns to begin with."
Reinforcing Disordered Behavior
Thinspo is dominated by photos, many of them of them depicting skeletal young women and girls with prominent ribs, twig-like limbs and sallow visages. To an outsider, these pictures can be disturbing. To a girl deeply focused on her eating disorder, Mysko said they can affirm her life choices and further distort her view of what a normal, healthy female body should look like.
The sites are also rife with credos and manifestos. The quote "Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels" and the Latin phrase "Quod me nutrit me destruit" (That which nourishes me destroys me) are prominently displayed on many of the sites. Others post "The Thin Commandments," which include statements like "being thin is more important than being healthy" and "being thin and not eating are signs of true willpower and success" and "what the scale says is the most important thing."
Before the social media explosion of thinspo, girls would typically glean new ideas for maintaining their withered frames from the pages of magazines or by mingling with other anorexics and bulimics at clinics and support groups. But now, said Andrea Vazzana, a clinical psychologist at New York University's Child Study Center, this sort of information is just a few clicks away.
One recent International Journal of Eating Disorders study found that 96 percent of women who have viewed thinspo content reported finding new ways to keep their weight down.
"Social media has become a covert way to share different tricks and tips for managing hunger, restricting calories, self-induced vomiting and ways to hide weight loss," Vazzana said.
Thinspo Bans Prove Tough to Enforce
Even as women -- and a few men -- with disordered eating flock to thinspo sites, a movement is afoot to shut them down. In 2008, France banned websites that promoted an eating disorder lifestyle or that used the hashtags thinspo, pro ana or pro mia. More recently, social sites popular with pro ana groups on this side of the Atlantic have tried similar bans.
But thinspo prohibitions have had limited success. A quick trip through any social site with a purported thinspo ban -- particularly Tumblr, Instagram and Pinterest -- show that content is visible and thriving. When a site is shut down, it simply sets up shop elsewhere.
"It is very difficult to truly eradicate thinspo because of the nature of the Internet," Mysko said. "There are technical limitations and no foolproof way to catch it until after it's been put up. We applaud the platforms that have taken a stand in their community policies, but at the same time we recognize how impossible it is to keep up with it."
For their part, thinspo followers see it as a freedom of speech issue. Why shouldn't they be left to eat, look and live as they please?
But they rarely agree to go on the record. Vazzana said they tend to prefer to remain secretive and anonymous.
"In my 10-plus years of experience in and out of this online community, it is very rare for mainstream media to present an unsensationalized, objective opinion," one thinspo blogger, who asked not to be identified, told ABC News. "Similarly, people who have participated in such reports in the past have been harassed on their accounts and via email."
Mysko said she thought it may be more effective to counteract the thinspo message with positive alternatives.
"We know people struggling with eating disorders and poor body image are looking to connect with others who know what they are going through," she said. "We need to offer a safe, supportive environment that promotes recovery and helps them disengage from an unhealthy mindset."