(Disclaimer: This post may be triggering for those who have experienced an eating disorder, or experienced a loved one with an eating disorder. We are going to include links to websites that discuss eating disorders, a few of which may be disturbing to some, so as to demonstrate the reality of the problem in today’s culture. We hope to shed light on this issue in order to make way for important conversation and healing.)
She sat on her dorm room bed—covered by a blue comforter and way too many pillows—and considered the cost of the bowl of cereal she’d just consumed. You didn’t need that. Why the heck do you keep eating so much, you know you’re fat! Her friends were all skinny, the girls who got boyfriends were skinny, only skinny girls are pretty girls, she thought. I have to do something about this, I have to get skinny.
Google search: anorexic diets.
A few moments later, she found the “rainbow diet,” daily meal plans categorized by color that were restricted, to say the least. And this is just one diet out of 1.6 million results.
Monday’s meals consist of:
Breakfast: ½ apple (40.5 cals)
Lunch: ½ apple (40.5 cals)
Dinner: 1 cucumber (24 cals)
Total: 105 cals
Tuesday-Sunday’s meals were much of the same. A single carrot, a banana, maybe a handful of blueberries. Other people who did this diet only spoke of how wonderful it was, how it helped them to lose weight, how everyone should do it too. So, set on losing as much weight as possible, she became obsessed with every bite of food. Calorie counting apps, food logs in her phone’s notes, constant exercise—no grace, no joy, and none of the ultimate satisfaction she craved.
No one knew, no one could know. What would they think if they found out? They’d make her stop, and that just wasn’t an option. She still had weight to lose, and nothing was more vital than meeting her goal weight. All the while, hurtful language flooded her mind: You’ll never be beautiful. Just give it up.
The reality of #meanspo
This girl’s story is all too common among people today. Finding ways to become anorexic or bulimic is as easy as a simple google search, thanks to #proana and #promia support groups, tweets, Tumblr threads, and blogs (read at your own discretion, the content and language is heartbreaking). However, specifically searching for these things isn’t the only way to find them; simply entering phrases like “fitness tips,” “fitspiration/fitspo,” or “weight loss” can also be an introduction to the world of eating disorders.
If you’ve never heard of these terms, you’re not alone. But as parents of teens who are growing up in a world of scrutiny and self-hate, it’s more important than ever to educate ourselves on what these terms mean, and how we can take a loving approach in discussing them with our kids. First, we’ll define common eating disorder terms:
- Meanspo or Thinspo: Short for “mean inspiration,” meanspo is just as it sounds, overly critical and insulting statements hurled at those who are “not thin enough,” intended to inspire them to stop eating, purge, and lose weight.
- Pro-Ana: People who identify themselves as pro-anorexia. They encourage themselves and others to pursue an anorexic lifestyle. Often portrayed by the hashtag #proana on Tumblr, Twitter, and other social media sites.
- Pro-Mia: People who identify themselves as pro-bulimia. They encourage themselves and others to pursue a bulimic lifestyle. Often portrayed by the hashtag #promia on Tumblr, Twitter, and other social media sites.
- Bonespo or Ribspiration: Similar to “mean inspiration,” “bone inspiration” often involves photos of dangerously thin people, usually women, with protruding bones, serving as an inspiration for someone to eventually look like that.
The Pro-Ana/Mia community has created these personas (and #Debbie for depression) as ways to “encourage” individuals to push through whatever “setbacks” or “temptations” they may be experiencing in achieving their goals. There are even pledges to Ana and things written from Ana’s voice, many of which are harsh and tell a person to never be satisfied with his/her body.
Why would anyone do this?
Understanding the appeal of it can be hard, but it’s of paramount importance. To do so, first think about our culture. Women (and increasingly men) are surrounded by images of perfectly sculpted, gorgeous, flawless bodies (yes, bodies...they’re often depicted without heads). And these images are typically connected in one way or another to some level of happiness (how else would companies sell products?). So young, impressionable minds see such images and connect physical appearance, beauty, thinness, and perfection with happiness, popularity, self-worth, and success. But now, unlike generations before, young people have screens in their pockets that encourage them to focus on their appearance while incessantly delivering these images of “beauty,” whether they’re looking for them or not.
Second, family and peer relationships can play major roles in whether or not someone develops an eating disorder. This man was fat-shamed as a child by his mother (because she learned it from her own mother), as well as bullied by his peers for being “ugly” and fat, which contributed to his eating disorders and other destructive addictions. This woman witnessed her mother’s yo-yo dieting, fear of “fat,” and hatred of her body, which the woman inevitably learned and put into practice in her early tween and teen years. Then, because of the praise and attention she received for being so thin, her disorder spiraled out of control. We cannot underestimate the power of relationship in our lives. And in our increasingly digital world, off-handed or mean-spirited comments are so easy to send and seem insignificant to the sender, but can wreak havoc on the receiver.
Third, these teen girls reveal that many with eating disorders don’t view it as a problem to fix; rather, they see it as a lifestyle that’s “worth it.” Many with eating disorders also mention that once they joined a pro-eating-disorder community online, they felt they finally had a place to belong. As one psychiatrist says, “Eating disorders can be extremely isolating conditions, and so finding a community of other people who think like you can be a powerful draw.” And because these communities are digital and often exclusive (i.e. hidden from concerned adults), the disorders become glamorized while the consequences of encouraging others to continue in their habits are never observed.
Finally, many survivors of eating disorders can pinpoint the beginning of their troubles to a traumatic experience: bullying/ridicule, abuse, a breakup, parents’ divorce, loss of a loved one, moving to a new place. They often mention controlling their bodies as a way to cope with the intense emotional pain from that trauma, saying they can’t control anything else, but they can control food. And often, many turn to eating disorders not to get skinny, but to feel release from pain.
Why hasn’t anyone stopped this behavior online?
In 2012, Tumblr released a statement barring against self-harm posts on the site, claiming that “[Tumblr’s] Content Policy has not, until now, prohibited blogs that actively promote self-harm. These typically take the form of blogs that glorify or promote anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders; self-mutilation; or suicide.” But despite their attempt to shut down self-harm posts that promote eating disorders, there’s still no shortage of content on the subject available on the site. A Google search for “Tumblr pro-ana” took us straight to a page (language) full of pro-ana quotes, some of which being: “My ultimate goal is for people to tell me that I’ve lost way too much weight and that I’m too skinny now,” and “Why should I eat if my thighs still touch?”
All that to say, we cannot place our trust in the policies of companies to keep our kids safe. No site will claim to “promote” harmful language, they will always outwardly discourage such behavior; but in reality, it’s difficult to cease altogether. And in the same way, we can delete social media apps and prevent our kids from getting onto sites like Tumblr all we want, but teens can usually find a way around rules—they may use someone else’s phone to log in, create secret accounts, find a different social media site or messaging app, etc.
If you’re feeling discouraged, please know this: There is hope, and when we take the time to come alongside our kids in their struggles, pathways to healing can be formed. You are not alone. At the end of this post, we will include a list of resources for you and your teen, which we encourage you to explore and begin the journey to recovery with them.
Talking to your teen about eating disorders
No caring adult wants to address this issue with their kids. It’s scary and often feels like way bigger of an issue than we’re even equipped for. But the absolute best thing that you can do for your teen is to simply listen. Open up a dialogue, show them that you care, and reinforce the self-worth that they may have lost long ago. But it’s important to educate ourselves on the issue of eating disorders before entering into the sensitive discussion. Click here to read a list of warning signs that may alert you to unhealthy behaviors, and see our resources at the end of this post for further research.
Here are some questions you may consider asking:
- Have you ever known someone who struggles with an eating disorder? How did you talk with them about it?
- Why do you think people develop any kind of eating disorder? Is it solely about how they look?
- Have you ever known someone who had a good relationship with their body and with food? How did they get to that point?
- How do you feel about your body? How do you feel about your life? Is there anything about your life or your body you wish you could change or that gives you anxiety? Why?
- Why do you think people want control over their lives? Is it possible to have true control? What does God’s Word say about living out of worry and fear?
- How can I help you to have a better relationship with yourself, your body, and others? Is there anything I’ve done that has affected those relationships negatively? How can I do better?
- How can we pray for the people we know who struggle with eating disorders, mental health, and their identity? How else can we support them?
- Do you feel safe enough to talk to me about anything, including your struggles, fears, and anxieties? If not, how can I make you feel safe?
- Eating Disorder Hope
- National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
- Parent support groups
- The Emily Program, which works with families, friends, and other loved ones to help them cope with the consequences of eating disorders.
- A Parent’s Guide to Eating Disorders