Opinion: ‘Thinspiration’ detrimental to physical, mental health

(Hannah Hunsinger | The Collegian)

The debate over body image portrayal in the media is not a new one. No matter where we turn we’re bombarded by contradicting messages. Whether it’s a magazine cover displaying a gorgeous, stick-thin model surrounded by articles condoning body-type diversity, or commercials claiming acceptance of a variety of shapes and sizes that somehow seem to feature the same 24-inch waist across the board.

We’re used to society handing us reasons to feel insecure about how we look. Now, however, it seems social networking is making it even easier for women (and men) to obsess over their physical attributes.

“Thinspiration,” or “thinspo,” is a term coined by groups of individuals seeking encouragement and motivation to pursue weight loss, dieting and exercise. Thinspo can be a variety of things like inspirational quotes, personal success stories or photos of people with the “ideal” body. This method, meant to encourage healthy habits amid the current obesity epidemic, seems harmless enough – right?

For those who are looking to do a body overhaul, no matter how dramatic, “fitspiration” can be a great alternative to thinspo. Although it is in no way the end-all, be-all of the fitness world, empowering messages and tips from people who are working to become stronger and healthier – instead of simply trying to fit the skinny mold – may kick-start this sort of change for many people.

Users give fitspiration by offering fitness advice that encompasses a wide-variety of activity and healthy recipes that do more for your body than slash calories. I have my own Pinterest board filled with workouts, meal plans and motivational quotes that I consult whenever I need a boost in pursuing my own physical endeavors. It can absolutely be a tool for positive reinforcement.

What is often left out of the discussion of thinspo is the prevalence of detrimental effects. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, an estimated 20 million women and 10 million men in the U.S. suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some point in their lives.

Although there are not currently any statistics about the direct correlation between thinspiration and these illnesses, it is commonly accepted among experts that preoccupation with weight and food, as well as low self-esteem and cultural pressures glorifying “thinness,” are some of the major influences for those who do develop eating disorders, many of which thinspo provides in an easily accessible online form. Even “reverse thinspiration” – where overweight bodies and greasy food stand in stark contrast to the thinner, more attractive models – exist as negative reinforcement in the community.

Another facet of the issue is to remember that, similarly to the way everyone progresses differently, there is not a “one-size-fits-all” plan for physical health. Fitspo and social media can be a great sounding board for those looking to make minor overall improvements, like dietary adjustments or efficiency when working out.

However, for those who have a major goal in mind like losing extreme amounts of weight for health reasons, the safest route is to consult an expert. Nutritionists and personal trainers are there for a reason: to tailor a plan that works for each specific client. Individuals looking to make dramatic modifications should look to skilled professionals, not to an online bulletin board.

It does need to be said that I do not believe there is anything wrong with inspiration to live a healthy lifestyle. However, what is often disregarded by the concept of thinspiration is that progress and success look different for everyone. Because there is generally only one body type represented in these sorts of images, it can be so easy for people to internalize that ideal as the single way to achieve the pinnacle of beauty in our society; that is just not the case. While social media sites like Pinterest can have a positive effect on some individuals in the way of health and body image, as a whole, it is important to remember that “thinspiration” is often just another means of promoting conformity when it comes to beauty ideals.

If we make the choice now to see thinspo for what it really is, it will undoubtedly help keep the self-esteem of future generations from coming unpinned.

Kaitlyn Dewell is a senior in mass communications.