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'Thinspiration' Sites: Helpful or Harmful?

While “thinspo” sites may motivate some to lose excess weight and get in shape, for others these online images can inflict serious damage to self-esteem.

| July 22nd, 2013
Getty Images/Pinterest
'Thinspiration' Sites: Helpful or Harmful?

“Thinspiration” pages—collages of pictures and slogans designed to motivate weight loss—have popped up all over online social hubs, including Pinterest, Facebook, Tumblr and Instagram. But beware: Your body image and self-esteem can take a major hit looking at these “thinspo” pages. Why? Because most of these user-generated collections are packed with photos of unrealistically-shaped, ultra-skinny women, along with punishing slogans like “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” and “Skip dinner, wake up thinner.”

MORE: Are Some People Born to be Thin?

Some of these sites that may have originally started as a way for people to inspire themselves to be healthy and fit have spiraled out of control, points out Rachel Dore, an adjunct professor who specializes in eating disorders at the Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology at Widener University. “It’s dangerous if what you’re looking at for inspiration is not realistic,” says Dore. “I think that’s why some of these thinspiration sites get out of control. People look at the pictures and say, ‘Wow, if she did that, I can do that.’ But the truth is everybody is different. You may still be able to get to that same weight, but it’ll be in an unhealthy way.”

These images of skinny, happy-looking, six-pack-sporting, bikini-clad women can also make some of us feel like crap: “Someone who’s more prone to self-defeating-type thinking is going to ask, ‘Why don’t I look like this? I feel even worse about myself than I did before looking at those pictures,’ ” says Dore. Nina Savelle-Rocklin, a Los Angeles area psychoanalyst specializing in eating disorders, agrees: “I have one client in particular who is obsessed with photos of thin women on Instagram. She compares her body to photos of other women, calculating the differences between them and invariably feeling ‘fat’ and inferior in comparison. Food helps her cope with these painful emotions, so she binges and purges when she feels upset, which further undermines her mood and sense of self.”

Over time, online “thinspo” sites could even warp some women’s ideas of what is actually normal and achievable in real life. “Some clients who frequent those websites have completely lost perspective on what is normal or appropriate when it comes to health,” says Savelle-Rocklin. “One of them ridiculed the public negative reaction to a recent bathing suit photo of an actress who was described as ‘too thin.’ She declared, ‘I think she looks great. I mean, ribs should stick out.’ When I investigated where this notion came from, she couldn’t tell me why she held the idea as an absolute truth. I suspect her viewpoint came from frequenting these sites on a daily, if not hourly basis, and absorbing the messages that skinny is beautiful, desirable, powerful and good.”

MORE: Why Thin Women Fat Talk

All that said, Dore doesn’t think that every woman needs to avoid Internet thinspiration at all costs. “Instead of asking whether or not you should be looking at a site, ask yourself, ‘What do I feel when I see this? What does this make me want to do?’ ” If it’s making you feel bad about your body, step away from those sites.

But for others, accessing the communities of Tumblr, Pinterest and Facebook can help themselves heal from distorted body image and disordered eating. “I had a 16-year-old client who used her Tumblr account to access others who were in recovery, and they provided invaluable support because she was home-schooled and somewhat isolated,” says Amy Jaffe, R.D., a nutritional therapist who works with eating disordered people in Coral Gables, Fla. “She posted her ‘calorically-dense for weight restoration’ recipes and photos of her foods on Tumblr and Pinterest and had quite a following.”

Still, no woman can rely on catchy, cutting phrases and digital pictures to create change in her mind or body. It requires setting realistic goals for healthy weight loss and getting in better shape. “In the pursuit of fitness, I think first comes a fit psyche—healthy and free so the individual is able to know what her authentic goals are,” says Los Angeles therapist Joanna Poppink, author of “Healing Your Hungry Heart: Recovering From Your Eating Disorder.” “Then she discovers her inspiration and honors herself; she doesn’t chase after a goal she’s been brainwashed into wanting.”

That’s the healthy state of mind Cheri Osmundsen, a 37-year-old staffing manager and mom from southern California, is in. “I sometimes post sayings or quotes about running that motivate me on Facebook, but I’d never want to make myself feel bad by idealizing a picture of somebody who looks nothing like me,” she says. Instead, she’s found another source of “fitspiration” to help her get back to running and lose the baby weight after her third pregnancy: photos of herself. “Sometimes I refer back to old pics when I was running a lot,” she says, “and that gives me motivation because it was me at my best and a realistic expectation.”

MORE: Reimaging Your Perfect Body

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