Last week I came across a co-worker’s “thinspo,” which is a type of personal Tumblr used (mostly by women) for inspiration to lose weight. I found it when she linked her blog on Twitter, and I randomly googled the blog handle.
I had seen the roots of thinspo ten years ago when my social circle found our anorexic friend’s secret LiveJournal. It was linked to a huge online subculture for girls with eating disorders I remember very clearly reading this “recipe” for a snack:
If you want to eat, just write “I am fat and ugly” fifty times on a piece of paper. When you’re done, if you’re still hungry, write it fifty more times. Repeat until skinny.
This spring, I came across a lot of thinspos while doing research for a teen outreach program I was coordinating. I was pleased to find that in 2012 the thinspo community is much healthier than the blogrings of yore (so long “HiPBoNesOrDie” handles). Most girls reblog messages against anorexia and bulimia. They motivate others to eat at least 1,600 calories a day. Many thinspo blogs offer legit health tips like which fruits are highest in fiber, how to find low-cal options at Starbucks, and workout routines. And, of course, even online, the thinspo community cultivates a huge sense of support for users who are in an uphill battle with obesity. The thinspo transformation seems to be one example of a negative internet trend corrected. But, of course, on the flip side, get a huge group of girls around the same picture of teeny-waisted Miley Cyrus, and insecurity isn’t far behind no matter how anti-disorder the thinspo community claims to be.
Seeing thinspos of teens from afar and then finding my 21-year-old coworker’s self-deprecating Tumblr were two very different things. I’ve known this girl for years. We’re not the closest of friends, but I know a good deal about her life and vice versa despite only seeing each other for seasonal summer work. Here’s what I know about this girl — I’ll call her Nessa. Nessa always appears extremely confident. Nessa is beautiful, with a unique face, naturally tanned skin, and thick wavy hair. She’s a tiny girl, short with a lil’ frame. She’s a “cool” gal — always jamming on some indie beats and rocking American Apparel duds. Effortless. That’s the word I would use to describe her. Until I found this secret Tumblr!
When I found Nessa’s thinspo, I pitied her. Then rejoiced. Then was angry with her in a matter of seconds. First, I don’t think anyone should live the way she is living. She’s far from anorexic, but she writes, “I will lose ten pounds” and reblogs hundreds of photos of girls who have a zero-percent fat content . The extent to which she has to think about her calories, her bones, her waist inches when she is already very skinny made me sad.
Then I was strangely comforted because, well, even Nessa is bugged by her body enough to obsess over it. When I was reading those Xangas years ago, I imagined those girls to be exceptions, but even normal Nessa actually feels worse about herself than I do on my worst day. And then I felt normal too. And that’s also why I got angry. The chick walks around, head held high, wearing midriff-baring tanks all summer like she doesn’t even know she has a body when really she is focusing a ton of energy on being able to appear that way!
Why does this matter to me? Nessa and girls like Nessa are what make me feel frustrated when it comes to my appearance. I don’t think I’m ugly or fat, but I’ve never met a girl who doesn’t feel like one or both sometimes. Everybody has days of greasy pigtails and inside-out sweatshirts paired elegantly with gym shorts that dig slightly into one’s bloated PMS tummy (EXCUSE ME FOR LIVING). On low days, I bemoan the fact that there are a lot of women who never have to really feel the way I do.
I don’t know what I expect from Nessa. Confidence is really the key to success in life, which in turn means we should hide insecurities — or does it? I’m thinking about how I used to see Nessa, and how successful she seemed to me from her confidence alone. But, now I’m imagining a world where Nessa wears her insecurities on her sleeve. If she had ever whined about losing ten pounds in front of me, I probably would have told her to shut up.
None of the women in my life actually talk about the emotional grind of wishing to look better — and definitely not as frequently as we probably all feel it. We avoid it or joke about it because it’s honestly silly for any healthy to girl to ever spend time concerned with wanting to be smaller. But it doesn’t stop us from wanting it.
We’ve gotten to a place in feminism where we know we should be beyond coveting the Victoria’s Secret Angel’s bodies, so we’ll just do it privately and suspect we are the only ones. For many girls, the only place they feel cozy actually sharing how they feel is online anonymously. Even though I don’t have a Tumblr, this theory still applies to me. I’ve looked up Kristen Wiig’s before and after photos; I’ve youtubed Mila Kunis’s interviews about dieting for Black Swan. As a result, I basically confirm what I fear: I could be thinner, and if I’m not trying to be, I’m denying myself success, and love. Instead of having a real conversation about satisfaction, beauty, and fulfillment with the women in my life, I’m having the dialogue with Google Images. This ranges from my mother (who says casually, “Oh, I’m getting fat” letting me know it shouldn’t be a big deal, but simultaneously constantly pulling her sweater over the negligible stomach roll she has acquired over the past couple years) to my best gal pals who drop that they’re on a leek fast without batting an eye.
This sucks because when we alienate ourselves from reality and find solace in an underworld of self-hatred within the confines of the web, we just get more of what is ailing us. And I really don’t think communities of strangers (even if they become “friends”) based on mutual image-obsession will help in the long run either. What we truly need is to step away from the screen and just talk to each other. If we don’t, in an effort to prove we aren’t affected by the general societal consensus on beauty (and now I’m including male beauty as well), we are saying the standards we have are not harmful.
To be fair, thinspos help people get those thoughts out instead of bottling them up. But what if we remove the blog part of the equation? What if you were as honest as you would be in a private Tumblr? And, if there’s something you would feel ashamed to admit without your anonymity, maybe that’s a good indication you shouldn’t be thinking it, and you should get help correcting that type of mindset. I mean, I’m not going to become this bothersome Regina George always talking about losing five pounds, but I can look at periodically expressing my concerns with myself as a way to let others see that expressing insecurity does not make one inherently pathetic.
I start work with Nessa in just a couple weeks. I won’t mention what I found. I’ll try not to monitor her monitoring her food intake. But, I will listen closely when she speaks to me, ready to talk if the opportunity should arise. When I consider what I would say to her if she had actually gushed her insecurities to me as opposed to me finding them, I’m slightly stumped. The after-school special in me would want to start by explaining she is perfect as she is, but the realist in me knows that wouldn’t help. Perhaps I’d share that in my experience I haven’t been able to find physical perfection, so to search for it, to slave to achieve it, will always leave us wanting more. It would be better to improve upon what we know we can improve — talents, skills, friendships, and, yes, maybe health is part of that — but certainly not the main event. Certainly not more achievable than the rest. And, as I considered this imaginary conversation I would have with Nessa, I realized how useful my own thoughts were to me once I had reason to articulate them.
Once they were no longer pushed aside by my own stare into the solitary void of female image. Once a real dialogue might open.
Illustration by Hallie Bateman