30/11/2012 05:08 GMT | Updated 29/01/2013 05:12 GMT

The Websites That Tell You 'Thin Is In'


In a sexualised society that bombards us with the idea of a perfect image, it is no surprise that pro anorexia and competitive dieting websites exist.

We foster a culture that leads us to believe that to succeed or to fit in, we have to fit this so called 'ideal' physically, or we will never get anywhere in life. This culture as ruined the lives of the old, young, short, tall, male, female and everything in between, yet we still accept it as a given in our society. You need only to have seen the recent BBC season looking at body image and the measures some young people have gone to, to feel 'normal'.

In the first ever review to put a number to the amount of websites promoting eating disorders and extreme dieting, between 400 and 500 of these websites have been identified, with in excess 500,000 visits a year. It was only in 2011 that a survey revealed that 1 in 5 six to eleven year olds had accessed this kind of 'harmful content'.

These websites, filled with so-called 'thinspiration' tell people how to diet on just 400-500 calories a day, which is less than half of a woman's daily recommendation. Such diets include dangerous behaviours such as purging, abusing laxatives and taking diet pills which in most countries are illegal, yet easily purchased over the internet. Users of these websites will often compete with pictures and statistics, to find out who has lost the most weight and who is the skinniest amongst the pro anorexia community.

It is important to remember that eating disorders are in fact serious psychiatric conditions and I still don't believe that just a website is enough to develop one, but it can fuel and maintain the behaviours often seen in anorexia and bulimia, prolonging their illness and suffering. For someone not suffering from an eating disorder, this onslaught of thinspiration leaves people insecure, worrying about their appearance, crash dieting and becoming obsessed with the way they appear to others. Once this cycle starts, there will be no end goal, because the goal posts will always shift, the target will become greater and this obsessive behaviour can develop into serious difficulties.

Grace Shepherd is a youth worker who was willing to share her experiences of supporting young people with issues like this, with vast experience of working with young girls, she felt there has been a significant increase in the number of young people with body image issues:

"There is a significant increase in the number of young women who seem to be constantly dieting, complaining they are fat and have a false perception of what they really look like. One young woman had looked at a site purely out of curiosity and thought the girls portrayed were not natural. It is easy to see, however, that it is easy to see if a young person is feeling negative about their body then there is a 'draw' to revisit these websites and mimic the images seen."

What should be done about it?

There is call from eating disorder charities and campaigns worldwide for a total ban on these websites. I wrote previously about two leading social networks banning pro anorexic content from their sites and there have been conscious efforts from many other platforms to do the same. But there is also a call from others for the education of young people around issues concerning body image and self esteem, just like the school campaign Gossip School.

I asked Grace what she thought could be done and whether or not a ban was the answer:

"As a youth worker I work with young people so they can make informed decisions about many things. In someway these sites can start healthy discussions around the issue of body image and eating disorders and to take a healthier view of themselves. If such sites were banned I feel that young people would still find a way to access and distribute such content, it will simply make it more subversive than it is now."

Personally, I work a fair bit around self-image and self esteem and I tend to agree. In an ideal world such websites wouldn't exist, we would not be bombarded with a perception of ideal in the mainstream press and we would be happy and confident in the skin we are in. But, we don't live in that ideal world, we live in that sexualised society and we have to work with that. Education, awareness and programs that work directly with young people around these issues is the way forward, as a simple notion to ban all these websites would be virtually unenforceable.

It's time that we took a hard look at everything going on around us, with budgets being cut to services that support young people, PSHE in schools being delivered so variably nationwide and a very scattered approach to what should be a very important subject, things will only go downhill, as without this intervention, the problem will only continue to rise.