From BBL to weight-watchers — body types are trendier than designer labels. Celebrities are using their bodies as marketing tactics, and the media is falling for it. First it was the Tumblr skinny, then it was Kim Kardashian’s hourglass and now it’s the “it-girl” aesthetic. Using body types as trends curates disordered eating and unhealthy body images, so when can we finally put romanticizing thinness to bed?
Kim Kardashian’s drastic weight loss, which was on full display at last year’s Met Gala, shocked and triggered many attendees and onlookers. In the weeks following Kardashian’s now infamous appearance at the event, a slew of publications began announcing the death of slim-thick and the resurrection of thinness.
Following this declaration of the ideal body image reversal, images of thinner bodies like the heroin-chic supermodels of the ‘90s have dominated the Gen Z cultural discourse and spurred some users to form communities rooted in pro-anorexia messaging.
Promotion of anorexia or “pro-ana” communities trace their roots back to social media sites like Facebook, MySpace and Tumblr. Although these groups remained on the fringes of the mainstream as niche internet spaces for years, they’ve now infiltrated TikTok, the world’s-most downloaded app for the last two years.
Nicole Kujas, a University of Miami sophomore majoring in biochemistry and nutrition, has been alarmed by the increasing number of TikTok videos she sees with hashtags like #skinny, #weightlossmotivation and #fitnessinspo in recent months.
“I am not a fan of pro-ana communities, and I try to stray away from any form of interaction with them because I think that they are extremely toxic,” said Kujas. “Interacting in a pro-ana community online can make one’s eating disorder more drastic by encouraging them to partake in drastic behaviors because others are, too.”
Pro-ana communities may appear harmless under the guise of aspirational wellness content or aesthetic inspiration. However, these pockets of the internet can romanticize disordered eating habits which, through consistent exposure, can cause full-fledged eating disorders. UM senior Antoneasha Hudge, a global health major, had her early interactions with “thinspo” in pro-ana communities.
“When I was 13, I unfortunately had too much unrestricted internet access,” said Hudge. “I remember the grunge and hipster eras on Tumblr when girls would take webcam photos showing off their rib cages and sickly faces in tiny shorts and bikinis.”
After her initial exposure to thinspo images, Hudge admits she became consumed by the pro-ana users’ glorification of women with thigh gaps, visible collarbones and flat stomachs. Like many social media users, her vulnerability to these toxic messages stemmed from her own insecurities about her body.
“I started engaging in pro-ana communities after seeing those grunge and hipster girls and wondering why I didn’t look like that,” said Hudge. “Aside from seeing those images, I started to see tips on how to get skinny such as establishing a daily limit of 500 calories or running five miles a day.”
Logging meals, counting calories and tracking weight became a part of Hudge’s daily routine in hopes of feeling good about her body. However, Hudge felt disillusioned when her disordered eating habits weren’t as effective as she had hoped, and began to villainize her body for not dropping the pounds she desperately wanted to lose.
“I was doing everything pro-ana communities told me to do, yet I couldn’t get the results I wanted,” said Hudge. “I felt like my body was the enemy.”
These pro-ana communities all encourage some variant of disordered eating, most of which are most closely related to anorexia — or anorexia nervosa, as it’s referred to in the medical world. Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder associated with malnutrition and negative body image and is notorious for its profound effects on mental and physical health.
Many individuals, however, remain unaware of the condition’s lifelong ramifications for the human body. Dr. Melissa Spann, the Chief Clinical Officer of the eating disorder treatment organization Monte Nido, says anorexia can induce a slew of potentially devastating health conditions.
“Anorexia can absolutely damage the body on a physical level, as individuals can experience thinning hair, lethargy, muscle weakness and wasting, brittle and dry nails, hair, and skin and mild anemia,” said Dr. Spann. “Individuals also run the risk of permanently damaging their heart, brain and other important organs that aren’t getting the necessities they need to function.”
Despite knowing the many risks that anorexia can pose to long-term health, pop culture’s unattainable beauty standards still impact many young people.
“I have always correlated how I feel about myself to what I deem to be at the center of beauty in my head at the time,” said Hudge. “When you constantly see conversations online about the ideal body type and the ideal weight, I think you have no choice sometimes but to internalize [it].”
In 2003, doctors from the United States National Library of Medicine conducted a study on the relationship on youth media usage and unsurprisingly found a direct correlation between excessive exposure to media and eating disorders in American children. Citing this study, Dr. Spann said images depicting thinness in the media can negatively impact a young adult’s body image.
“Body image concerns can begin at a young age and endure through life, resulting in disordered eating behaviors such as skipping meals or fasting, along with weight control behaviors such as over-exercising, taking laxatives or vomiting,” said Dr. Spann. “As media continues to be prevalent in our society, youth are bombarded with images of the ideal body size and programming geared toward weight loss.”
In the era of social media, it’s hard for today’s youth not to compare themselves to celebrities, influencers and models who have access to world-class dieticians, nutritionists and plastic surgeons. Kujas sympathizes with the urge to compare oneself to seemingly perfect individuals on social media, but says these images can perpetuate unrealistic beauty standards.
“It is often hard not to compare yourself to other people and wish you looked differently, but it is important to try and remind yourself that you do not need to look a certain way to look beautiful,” said Kujas. “Obsessing over the way people look online is unhealthy as what we see online is not always what is real.”
Dr. Spann admits that achieving body acceptance and self-love can be an exhausting journey, but professional care and mindset adjustments can help affected individuals combat eating disorders.
“Accepting the way our bodies look is one of the hardest things to do. Feeling positive about them might be even harder,” admitted Dr. Spann. “A few ways individuals can enhance their quality of life include learning how to consume media critically, remembering that you are more than your body, not fighting your body and taking advantage of available resources.”
Body types are not trends, despite what media may be advertising. Though “thinspo” is being pushed across platforms as the new, unachievable standard, these messages are purely harmful marketing.
“Self-love is one of the most important things to cherish and protect,” said Kujas. “Because if you don’t love yourself and your body, how are you going to show love to others?”
words_andrew mccleskey. photo&design_jade hidalgo.
This article was published in Distraction’s Spring 2023 print issue.