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The skinny: During National Eating Disorder Week , Tumblr tackles self-harm blogs

Photo+Illustration+by+Janice+Biancavilla+%2F+Daily+Wildcat
Janice Biancavilla
Photo Illustration by Janice Biancavilla / Daily Wildcat

A woman’s hair is pulled up to reveal her spine, protruding from her back like a mountain range, her shoulder blades the highest peaks. She leans over, clutching the front of her body while staring at the floor. For Tumblr user skin-and-daintybones, the image is beautiful. It is ideal. It is “thinspiration.”

Blogs with images like this are often labeled “thinspiration” blogs. A search on Tumblr’s website of phrases such as “thinspiration,” “anorexia” and “skinny” — just to name a few — bring up thousands of photos of emaciated men and women clutching pronounced ribs, angular collarbones and sharp hipbones.

“How you lose weight is your business,” reads one post on wishingforskinny’s Tumblr blog, “Give Me Skinny or Give Me Death!”

However, Tumblr’s new policy on self-harm blogs may challenge this opinion. Tumblr officials announced through their staff blog on Thursday that the microblogging platform is developing a policy to deal with self-harm blogs, which include blogs that “glorify or promote” eating disorders. In an effort to raise awareness, the site is seeking input from bloggers. Staff members hope to have a policy set this week.

The conversation about the potentially harmful effects of pro-eating disorder blogs comes just in time for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which began Sunday. UA students took surveys on Monday that will be used to assess trends in eating disorders. Campus Health Counseling and Psych Services is putting on a Love Your Body Day event today to raise awareness about the problem.

Tumblr’s post about the policy suggested two possible approaches. The first is to prohibit the self-harm blogs entirely, and the other is to allow these blogs to exist but to tag them with links that direct users to websites like the National Eating Disorders Association.

Many of the self-harm blogs in question give advice on how to become underweight.

“What I have found these websites to be are people coming together to help facilitate their eating disorders,” said Gale Welter, a nutrition services coordinator and counselor for Campus Health Service. “I don’t think they are healthy but there is nothing we can do except, in treatment, point out how these websites are not serving the person or their recovery.”

Blogger afraidofthemirror posted on Tumblr a “food pyramid” that puts all food at the top with the caveat “use sparingly.” The pyramid goes on to suggest two to three servings of celery and lettuce, one to two servings of diet pills and laxatives, three to five servings of coffee and green tea, two to four servings of diet soda and juice and eight to 10 servings of water. The caption reads “something to live by.” Forty-eight people either reblogged or liked it.

Tumblr’s plans include a crackdown on this kind of behavior.

“For example, joking that you need to starve yourself after Thanksgiving or that you wanted to kill yourself after a humiliating date is fine, but recommending techniques for self-starvation or self-mutilation is not,” according to the Tumblr staff blog entry that explained the policy’s development.

The social component of eating disorders is part of what contributes to their popularity on college campuses, said David Sbarra, director of clinical training for the Department of Psychology. The campus environment allows people to cluster with those who are similar in age, gender and eating habits.

Sbarra said although eating disorders can be complex, most are derived from a person’s need to be in control or as a mechanism to cope with unresolved issues or anxiety.

“Students might find they can skip meals without Mom or Dad yelling at them and that might be a big deal,” said Laura Orlich, a certified counselor at Counseling and Psychological Services for Campus Health.

Arizonan Jaye Arouty experienced this eight years ago when her daughter was diagnosed with anorexia after leaving for college. Arouty is now the founder of an eating disorder family and friend support group.

“Me and my daughter are very close and I could tell through phone conversations something was different,” Arouty said. “And when she came home for breaks I could see it — the change.”

Arouty found treatment for her daughter and now dedicates most of her time to providing help for families based on her own experience and research.

“I think eating disorders are just as hard for the family as it is with people who are dealing with the disorder,” Arouty said. “Because most of them are parents who are wanting to save their children.”

One problem, Orlich said, is that Tumblr makes it easier for people to mask their Internet habits.

“Now when parents ask what their children are looking up they can easily say it is only their Tumblr account and not really set off any red flags,” Orlich said.

Picking out blogs that could trigger eating disorders is also hard, because many promote a healthy lifestyle. Images of fruits, vegetables and flat stomachs are paired with entries promoting diets based on 500 or fewer calories. Though behaviors like starvation are associated with anorexia, starvation out of fear of unhealthy eating is gaining attention under the term orthorexia nervosa.

“The best way I can describe it is that it’s a good idea gone bad,” Orlich said. “It’s full of rigorous rules and food choices that consumes how they function.”

Not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, orthorexia is considered by many professionals as a subsection to anorexia because it carries the characteristics of starvation and food obsession.

While similar to anorexia, orthorexia requires an approach that is more specialized, in order to not deter the person from healthy aspirations while introducing them to healthier habits, according to Martina Cartwright, a dietician and UA alumna who helps identify the qualities of orthorexia.

These qualities include voluntary isolation, judgment of other’s food choices and preoccupation with “healthy” foods.

“We don’t want to stop people from wanting to be fit,” Orlich said. “It’s a lot of learning how to respect their motivation.”

As for Tumblr, determining what constitutes “self-harm” could prove challenging.

“It’s a very hard line to draw,” Sbarra said. “It’s quite possible that there is no good way to treat eating disorders online.”

More about eating disorders

Students who have questions or want to get screened for eating disorders can visit CAPS, located on the third floor of Campus Health, where they can arrange to speak with a counselor.

Anorexia nervosa: Eating disorder characterized by a person’s small intake or complete avoidance of food. A disease that is mostly cognitive though a person’s fear of gaining weight or being in control.

  • Bulimia nervosa: A disorder based on a cycle of binge eating and purging though the use of vomiting or abuse of laxatives.
  • *Orthorexia nervosa: A fear of eating poorly to the point of eating very limited things.
  • *Drunkorexia: A term closely related to binge drinking when a person eats very little or nothing at all to offset the calories found in alcohol.
  • *Anorexia athletica: A term when a person obsessively over exercises and under eats to lose weight.
  • *Diabulimia: Occurs when a person with type one diabetes avoids insulin injections with the intent to lose weight by burning the fat inside their bodies instead of sugar.

Source: Information gathered through researchers mentioned in this story

*=Not regonized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

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