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Internet provides negative and positive support networks for those who have an eating disorder

People who have eating disorders have a vast network of resources at their disposal on the Internet. True to form of the Internet, those resources can either be helpful or harmful. In the Entertainment & Lifestyles section this week, there’s an article about those with eating disorders finding negative support groups on Twitter. But I first discovered these networks on tumblr, where 61 percent of its users are 13- to 18-year-olds. The next 57 percent are 19 to 25 years of age, according to Business Insider.

These age groups, particularly the former, are impressionable. So when you realize the number of blogs that exist to enable eating disorders, it paints a stark picture.

I first discovered these blogs when I saw a friend’s post tagged “proana” (pro-anorexia), which alarmed me for various reasons, but I then stumbled onto a larger picture. Blogs with “tips” on how to starve yourself. Blogs with photo after photo of unhealthy, starved women (called “thinspo,” short for “thinspiration”). Blogs that are “promia,” which stands for pro-bulimia. Blogs of women chasing the elusive “thigh gap,” the gap between a slim woman’s thighs when they stand up.

Websites such as these originally entered the media in the early 2000s, but now there seems to be a resurgence.

There are many sticky issues when it comes to these sites. Many of them outright promote their respective eating disorder, but some of them claim to be judgment-free, then straddle the line between giving tips on the eating-disorder lifestyle and offering help. This is important to those who suffer from eating disorders, who hear all the time they just need to “eat more” or “gain some weight,” as if it were that easy for them. Shannon Bonnette, who suffered from an eating disorder, claimed in 2002 in a New York Times article that these sites are what made her realize she had an issue and thinks they should be allowed, if there is a disclaimer on the site. Furthermore, you can argue a case for censorship if these websites are shut down for content. Or can you?

These websites are a symptom of a larger problem. I have known too many people who have suffered from eating disorders, and they have sometimes told me directly that it goes back to cultural norms, which set unrealistic body images. Target recently screwed up by removing part of a junior model’s crotch in a botched Photoshop job. That was the focus of the Photoshop fail gone viral, but the model’s arms also are unrealistically skinny, long and bony. Target apologized after backlash built up.

The argument that the blogs create a sense of community based around indulging eating disorders doesn’t outweigh the negative effects they can have, but is it right to outright censor them? As someone who believes heavily in almost absolute freedom of speech, it’s an uncomfortable issue to deal with because, on one hand, I wouldn’t ever want to encourage someone’s disorder. But on the other hand, I’m not sure if it’s OK to squash a viewpoint because it’s affecting people negatively. Then again, that doesn’t matter because the websites that host this content (tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) can remove whatever they want if it violates their terms of service. YouTube enforces anti- hate speech guidelines, so what’s stopping other social sites from adopting a policy that prohibits glamourizing eating disorders?

Ultimately, the websites that host this content need to take a hardline stance on it. If not outright deleting these blogs, they should at least embed links to recovery websites that offer help. Considering the serious and sometimes fatal effect of eating disorders, this is not something to let run rampant.

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, please visit The National Eating Disorders Association at nationaleatingdisorders.org/ to find-help-support.

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