What is Thinspo?

In today’s world, where images of idealized beauty are constantly bombarding us through social media, magazines, and advertisements, it’s no wonder that many individuals struggle with body image issues. One term that has gained notoriety in recent years is “thinspo,” short for “thinspiration.” Thinspo refers to a trend in which individuals share images and content that promote extreme thinness as an ideal body type.

Understanding Thinspo

Thinspo, as a phenomenon, primarily exists on social media platforms, where users create and share content that glorifies extremely thin bodies. These images often feature emaciated individuals, protruding bones, and captions that encourage extreme dieting and weight loss. The term “thinspiration” itself implies that these images are intended to inspire others to achieve a similar level of thinness. “This content is extremely harmful as it encourages eating disorder behaviors and increases body dissatisfaction,” said Elizabet Altunkara, LMSW, director of education at the National Eating Disorders Association.

What is Thinspo?

What Is Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia?

Pro-ana refers to websites and content that put anorexia in a positive light despite it being an
eating disorder.

People with anorexia tend to avoid food or severely restrict what they eat or they may diet or exercise too much due to fear of weight gain, no matter how underweight they are. This is because anorexia and other eating disorders are mental health conditions in which an individual often has a distorted perception of their body weight.

Pro-mia refers to websites and content that promote bulimia. Bulimia is an eating disorder involving a person binging or overeating food regularly and then vomiting or using laxatives to rid themselves of the food to prevent weight gain. SAMHSA. Eating Disorders.

While pro-ana and pro-mia overtly praise anorexia and bulimia as lifestyles, Cynthia M. Bulik, PhD, founding director of the University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, said thinspo more subtly encourages the same behaviors.

Thinspo and Eating Disorders

Thinspo can drive eating disorders since it may lead to an obsession with thinness, which may trigger disordered eating and exercise patterns, said Altunkara.

In a 2023 study, researchers examined whether exposure to content that promotes thinspo and fitspiration (extreme exercise to reach ideal body image) predicted women’s body dissatisfaction (BD), happiness, and disordered eating (DE) such as binge eating/purging, restrictive eating, and exercise.

Thinspo and Body Image

Body dissatisfaction is a risk factor in developing an eating disorder, explained Altunkara.

“Individuals who are exposed to [thinspo] content may experience body dissatisfaction, a distorted perception of their own appearance, and feelings of shame, anxiety, and self-consciousness,” she said. Research shows that age is an important factor when it comes to being influenced by highly-visual social media content, mostly affecting:

  • Younger adolescents
  • Women and other groups who strongly associate their appearance with attractiveness and self-worth

The Impact on Mental Health

*Negative Body Image: Thinspo images can have a profound negative impact on an individual's body image. Constant exposure to images of emaciated bodies can lead people to perceive extreme thinness as the only acceptable standard of beauty, which can erode their self-esteem and self-worth.

*Eating Disorders: Perhaps the most concerning aspect of thinspo is its potential to trigger and exacerbate eating disorders. Vulnerable individuals who come across thinspo content may be encouraged to engage in extreme dieting or purging behaviors in an attempt to achieve the depicted level of thinness.

*Depression and Anxiety: Consuming thinspo content can also contribute to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Constant comparison to unattainable beauty standards can lead to feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness.

*Social Isolation: People who become obsessed with achieving a specific body image often isolate themselves from friends and family, making it challenging to seek help or support.

*Physical Health Consequences: Extreme dieting and overexercising, often promoted in thinspo content, can lead to severe physical health consequences, including malnutrition, electrolyte imbalances, and organ damage.

How to Develop a Healthy Body Image

Looking at your beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors around food, physical appearance, and body image and identifying behaviors that could contribute to a negative body image is a start, said Altunkara.

Avoid the Comparison Trap

When exposed to social media content and images that promote a certain ideal appearance, try to gain perspective of what the content is pushing. By doing this, you can avoid comparing your body to those images and messages.

Remind yourself that many images on social media have filters on them and are usually someone’s highlight reel. Always be mindful of the content your are consuming and take note of how it makes you feel.

Create a List of Things You Like About Yourself

Write down between five and ten things you like about yourself that have nothing to do with your physical appearance, such as being a good friend, performing well at work, volunteering for your favorite organization, and so on.

Keep adding to the list as you think of more and read it often, especially when you find yourself critiquing your physical appearance.

If you’re constantly around people who put a lot of value and conversation around physical appearances and body size or who feed into the thinspo culture, it can be hard not to think about those things all the time. Try to find people who support you for who and what you are now. Their positivity can make it easier to feel good about yourself.