Mocking Thinspo

Note: trigger warning for eating disorders and thinspiration. In addition, I recognize that the messages in thinspiration are damaging and untrue, however this post is not about the messages contained in thinspo but about the individuals who make up thinspo communities.

Thinspo is stupid right? We all know it. It’s totally and utterly crazy for skinny white girls to sit around looking at pictures of even skinnier white girls and then whining and beating themselves up about not having an eating disorder? It’s utterly mindless and a waste of time and energy. Of course rich teen girls would have the time for this, but who else does? I just have to laugh at these idiots. They just want attention, they’re just trying to do it for boys. Don’t they know that anorexia is ugly? Don’t they know that curves are sexy? Don’t they know they’re damaging themselves and everyone around them? I hate them, but they’re so stupid sometimes I can’t even care.

As you might imagine I don’t agree with any of what I just wrote. However it took me a grand total of about 30 seconds on google to find quotes similar to all of what I said. Mocking thinspo is something of a national pastime and many people feel no qualms about viciously ripping into the people who engage in thinspo. I think we all need to come clean about it: we’ve probably made fun of thinspo as some point in our lives, we’ve probably thought that it’s sick and disgusting, we’ve probably thought that the people who do it are dumb and hurting others.

Yes, thinspo at first glance is disturbing and terrifying. But there’s a lot more going on in thinspo than you might think, and mocking it is really like kicking someone when they’re down. It’s not promoting the feminist agenda, it’s not promoting health, it’s not promoting mental health: it’s stigmatizing mental illness, it’s playing into the same dumb ideas that whatever teenage girls do is useless and stupid, and it’s actively ignoring the cultural milieu that might lead women to seek something like this, instead blaming them for trying to survive in a culture that glorifies thin.

So first and foremost what mocking thinspo ignores is that thinspo originated out of communities made up of individuals with eating disorders, and that the messages contained in thinspo are almost verbatim the things that an eating disorder will say to someone. Mocking someone for their mental illness is far more fucked up than having a mental illness.

People with eating disorders get mocked all the time anyway. This is a big part of the reason they feel the need to hide their behaviors and part of the reason they’re so isolated. Because not eating is so antithetical to basic biological drives, many people want to be able to write it off with sarcasm and cruel jokes. But those sorts of responses don’t provide any help or alternatives to the people being mocked. It provides more of the bad feelings and shame that they probably were trying to escape from in the first place, rather than giving them constructive help.  When mainstream culture tells you you’re stupid for feeling the way you do, you look elsewhere for support: usually to other people with eating disorders or disordered eating.

This is how thinspo communities get started in the first place. People with eating disorders can’t find community or support anywhere else and so they end up in an extremely destructive community. Mocking thinspo simply reinforces that the only “safe” people are those who also have the same beliefs and behaviors. When you make fun of the messages, you ignore some real and strong reasons for individuals to seek thinspo: loneliness, fear, shame, and self-hatred.

In addition, most people never make it beyond the front door of thinspo. They google skinny and come up with some disturbing and painful images, then spew hatred towards the people who created them. In reality, when you delve deeper you find some unexpected things. Many thinspo sites are a place of community and support, talking not only about weight and meals, but also about emotional difficulties. And oftentimes when someone in those communities makes the decision to seek treatment or recovery, they get support and kind words. Of course there are a myriad of negative messages in thinspo, but there are also people behind those messages who are often willing to provide friendship and a shoulder to cry on.

Let’s put the blame where it’s deserved: on advertisers who keep glorifying skinny, on modeling agencies that put pressure on their models to lose weight over and over, on messages about health and weight that remind us over and over again that thin is healthy. The women and girls who have internalized these messages are trying to survive in a hostile society and are using the available coping methods to allow themselves to deal with the toxic messages society sends them about their worth. It’s really easy to target people who are already hating themselves, but maybe we should look a little more critically at where those messages are coming from.

One of the final problems that a lot of people cite with thinspo communities is that they’re harmful and they glorify hurting yourself. That might be true. It’s entirely possible that thinspo has caused an eating disorder before (although I seriously doubt that it’s ever done it on its own).  But keep in mine who has created these spaces: people who are hurting, people who are lonely, people who are likely coping with a serious mental illness. I absolutely agree that we should work to dismantle the messages that are promoted in thinspo and that we should create and promote competing messages that help people find a measure of peace with themselves. But aiming our guns at the individuals who are already in so deep that they truly believe the words they’re saying? That is one of the most cruel things I could imagine.

As a last note, a lot of the mocking of thinspiration seems to be built on the back of “oh my god look at how disgusting that person is I can’t believe they’re so skinny”. Body shame of any kind is not ok. No bodies are disgusting. If you think otherwise, you can get out.

I’m going to be really open here. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at thinspo in my life. It’s never contributed to my eating disorder, but it was a clear indicator of when things had gotten bad for me. It made me feel less crazy. It made me feel safe.

I have a thigh gap. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my thigh gap. When it gets smaller, I get anxious. I also used to have a bikini bridge. I loved it, and I miss it and whenever I look at myself and see I don’t have it anymore I hate myself a little bit. I spend time and energy worrying about my body and there is nothing wrong with telling people that.

Because here’s the real honest truth. Anyone who wants to shame me for looking at thinspo or tell me that I’m disgusting, crazy, fucked up, or stupid because I internalized many of those messages knows nothing about me and certainly not enough to make those judgments. They don’t know why I engaged in those behaviors, and they clearly have misplaced their empathy. And if they truly believe those things about someone just because that person had an eating disorder? They can go fuck themselves.

Thinspo doesn’t make me stupid or anti-feminist, my actions and beliefs towards the patriarchy do. Thinspo doesn’t make me stupid and is not a valid reason to mock me, because what I do in my off time is none of your damn business. My use of thinspo doesn’t harm others (with the exception of my close friends and family who are invested in my well-being). Thinspo is an expression of a mental illness that is not my fault, that is not disgusting, and deserves not to be stigmatized. It is not ugly, wrong, or cruel to have a mental illness.

The vitriolic hatred of thinspo seems to me to be a veiled attempt to pass off body shaming, stigma of mental illness, and the relentless mocking of anything related to teenage girls as feminist. That’s bullshit. Mocking thinspo is a cruel action that drives people with eating disorders further into isolation. Full. Stop.


“Because it’s so GREAT and ENVIABLE to have your womanhood validated by straight men’s demeaning cat-calls. Because, in some fucking alternate world I’ve never had the luxury of visiting, being deemed sexually attractive by the standards of our culture means no longer being subject to body-policing (seriously… in what fucking world?!?). Etc.”

I recently ran into this quote on Natalie Reed’s blog (hurry up and get over there, she’s leaving soon and the archives will disappear. You’ll miss out on LOTS if you don’t read some of her stuff) about “passing” in trans* culture, and how for many people, passing is the gold standard of “trans-ness” (I’m really bad with this language because these issues really aren’t my personal ones and I’m still educating myself so please forgive any offensive or inappropriate language, I am trying my best and if you see something that’s wrong feel free to comment and let me know). It’s in response to the idea that as a trans woman, being found attractive by straight men is wonderful.

What really stood out to me was the last sentence: “In some fucking alternative world I’ve never had the luxury of visiting, being deemed sexually attractive by the standards of our culture means no longer being subject to body-policing”. OH MY GOD YES. This is something that has driven me crazy for ages. The dialogue about bodies and body shaming right now very much centers around fat, fat phobia, fat acceptance. That’s fine. Those are obviously the bodies that get the most shaming and policing. But there’s something far more insidious that goes on, even with bodies deemed “attractive”. And that goes beyond fat shaming, and into straight up sexism.

I have always been relatively conventionally attractive. I’m white, I’m slim, I’m tall. I personally don’t think I’m all that much to look at, but in general I fit into the basic demographic categories that should make me “attractive”. That doesn’t mean that I escape from body policing or body shaming. While I obviously agree that a dialogue around fatness and the cruelty people bring to fat individuals is important, I also think it’s important to point out instances in which EVERYONE is body policed, and to recognize those as instances in which female bodies are viewed as public property.

As a skinny individual, I have had people tell me that I need to eat more. That I look unhealthy. People have congratulated me when I eat unhealthy foods. I have had friends tell me I should wear more revealing clothing to show off my assets, and I have had boyfriends tell me to wear less revealing clothing because they didn’t want guys staring at my body. I have been told that I can firm up my fat into muscle if I exercise more, I’ve been told I’m too pudgy, I’ve been told my boobs are too small. Yeah, I’ve been cat-called. Starting when I was 13. I’ve been told my skirt is too short, that I should get contacts, that I should cut my hair or grow out my hair or wear my hear up or wear my hair down.

While many people who are fat think that they are the only people who get this type of interaction, the interaction that says “oh your body would look better if only…”, that is simply not true. They may think that other people pay no attention to how skinny people eat. Again, not true. All of these are marks of the way that many people feel as if they have a right to others’ bodies, or a right to some measure of attractiveness from the bodies around them. Most often this is in relation to women, which is why it appears to be a sign of sexism to me. More often than not, I get these kinds of comments from strangers or bare acquaintances, who feel that it is their business or duty to tell me how to look attractive or what to do with my body, although in some cases it’s someone who’s very close who feels that my body belongs to them. Most often it’s males, but sometimes it’s females who think they’re “doing me a favor”. I believe that on some level, the societal belief that they’re entitle to fat people’s bodies might be related to sexism. Often we see overweight men emasculated: the first derogatory term I think of when I think of an obese man is “manboobs”. Masculinity is supposed to be associated with strength, with physical ability, with virility, with power. These are not things we associate with the overweight, and I think that for many, being overweight is emasculating. This seems to allow other men to feel they have a right to criticize or control that body.

What all these ideas do is tell me and others that we need to be attractive (or masculine and fit). That that’s the rent I owe for taking up the space I’m in. That it is other people’s business how I look and what I do with my body. In reality, it should not affect anyone around me if I went out wearing a burlap sack, because what I do with my body and my clothes is my business, and I owe no one “cuteness”. And in high school when I was told over and over that my skirt had to be a certain length, or my shirt had to buttoned up so high, they perpetuated the idea that my body was dangerous, that boys would do bad things or be distracted or that it was simply WRONG if I let people see my body. And that my body had to be arranged in the appropriate way for those around me, both looking good (shirt had to be tucked in, right color shirt and shoes, no hair over eyes), and not showing too much to cause a ruckus.

Perhaps it should be time to start leaving other people’s bodies alone. Someone’s body is an intimate part of their self, and as a society we have cut ourselves off from that. We have decided that bodies are vessels that we need to perfect, and when we’ve perfected them then we’ll be free from any of this policing. But that’s not how it works. Bodies are an integral part of how we experience the world and ourselves, and our physical reactions to things make up a huge part of our identity. That is not something to perfect, but something to embrace. And no matter how “perfect” we become, if we view our bodies mechanically, we will always see how we could get better and continue to rip each other apart, because why would you keep something that is subpar? Our bodies don’t owe anyone else anything. Not attractiveness, not skinniness, not whiteness, not femininity or masculinity, nothing. We don’t have to earn our space or our bodies.

Body Policing and Attractiveness: They Can Live Together