The “Proana” Community Moves to TikTok

TW: eating disorders, self-harm

The proana community has been around for some time. Back around 2012 (give or take) proana content took off on Tumblr. There were entire Tumblrs dedicated to posting “thinspo” (aka “thinspiration) pictures of emaciated women, memes meant to encourage starvation and weight loss, and sharing exercise guides to getting a coveted thigh gap. To those who have never struggled with disordered eating or body acceptance, these blogs may seem laughable, or so cringey no one could possibly take them seriously. But unfortunately, for many young, vulnerable people (especially teenage girls) proana posts were convincing, and inspired disordered eating, self harm, and/or unnecessary self-hate.

Examples of images shared on proana Tumblrs meant to motivate people to engage in disordered eating.

Proana stands for pro-Anorexia, and while the name is insidious, the proana community is mostly made up of struggling young women. Most of the people posting and sharing this damaging content are not trying to hurt anyone (though a small amount absolutely are), and are actually using the content to fuel disordered eating habits.

The community did not stay isolated to Tumblr. It has appeared on most social media platforms, but perhaps the most on Pinetrest, Instagram, and TikTok, along with Tumblr.

Most platforms have figured out they need a policy to deal with blogs like this. In 2012, in the height of proana Tumblr, the company had to rework their policy, stating that “blogs promoting self-harm, including anorexia, bulimia, self-mutilation and suicide, would not longer be allowed” on Tumblr. They added that they were not going to remove blogs “engaged in ‘discussion, support, encouragement, and documenting the experiences of those dealing with difficult conditions.'”

Walking the line between encouraging recovery and encouraging sickness

Competitiveness among those with eating disorders is one of the reasons why treatment centers often ban patients from discussing weight, body shape or size with one another. Many people who struggle with eating disorders describe having an ED (eating disorder) “voice” inside their head, constantly giving them bad advice, putting them down, comparing them to others, pushing them to get worse and worse. This is why discussing eating disorders on the internet can be tricky, to say the least.

There is comfort in knowing that other people are struggling with similar issues—it helps you feel less alone, which is important in recovery. But when it comes to talking about eating disorders (especially with other people who have eating disorders), you can’t forget that the “ED voice” is listening, and sometimes sharing your experience means teaching other people a new harmful behavior. Being mindful about how you discuss your experiences and finding a balance between opening up without inspiring harmful behaviors, is key to healthy, recovery focused discussion on the internet.

Proana TikTok trends

In this video “please stop romanticizing easting disorders on tiktok,” YouTuber Sarah Hawkinson discusses several problematic TikTok trends that, I agree, tend to romanticize and encourage disordered eating (even when posted under the guise of being recovery oriented).

At around 3 minutes, she talks about a trend where those in eating disorder recovery post a reverse before and after: one where they were underweight, and a current photo of them at a healthy weight. While these posts should send a positive message, for those actively struggling with an eating disorder, these posts are counter productive—the before photo will likely still be the focus, and not in a way that inspires recovery. At 4:53 you can watch an example of one girl on TikTok explaining why the trend is harmful, like, for example, inadvertently fueling the stigma that you need to be underweight to seek treatment for an eating disorder (a common problem in the ED community). While I wouldn’t consider this to be proana content necessarily, it’s a good example of how even recovery related content can still be counter-productive. When it comes to posting about ED recovery online, before and after (comparison) pictures of any kind are usually not ideal.

At around 7:20, the video shows some example of actual proana content that romanticizes eating disorders and being underweight, and directly mimics some of the more disturbing proana content that popped up on 2012 Tumblr. The most worrisome includes a list of unhealthy “rules” to follow to lose weight.

In the comments section of this video, the top comment (with 10k thumbs up) mentions another saddening trend on TikTok:

In this case, the original post is often not even related to weight loss or encouraging eating disorders, and the person commenting is often making a joke. As this commenter points out, even if the comment is meant as a joke, vulnerable and impressionable minds could interpret it to mean that if they starve themselves they will look like the girl in the video. Not to mention comments like that probably make the original poster uncomfortable, whether or not she herself has an eating disorder.

Another YouTuber, registered dietician Abbey Sharp, reviews another questionable TikTok trend in her video “Dietician Reviews TIKTOK Weight Loss and What I Eat In A Day Videos.”

At 8:23, Abbey watches a “What I eat in a day to lose weight” TikTok video in which the person posting consumes only 550 calories, which is well below a healthy amount for any adult. Posting this as a guide for other people to follow absolutely qualifies as proana content. What’s even more concerning is that the video got over 14,000 likes! The fact that so many people would like a post encouraging a daily caloric intake of only 550 calories shows that there is a potentially large group of people on TikTok that could be vulnerable to following harmful weight loss advice. Considering TikTok’s young audience, these negative messages could be even more damaging.

TikTok’s young audience

TikTok is incredibly popular with children, teens, and young adults. Gen Z has taken over TikTok. This website estimates that 41% of TikTok users are ages 16 through 24, and with an estimated 26.5 million American monthly users, this translates to approximately 11 million teens and young adults on TikTok.

Teens are perhaps the most vulnerable to proana and disordered eating content. In a 2005 article for the Guilford Press, one study found that 50% of teenage girls and 33% of teenage boys use or have used restrictive measures to lose weight. Early restrictive eating habits can wreak havoc on a growing body. Calorie restriction during key growth years can result in stunted height, weak bones, and for women can lead to fertility issues.

Because TikTok has such a young audience, they need to take responsibility for finding an effective way to manage eating disorder related content. While I believe there should be space for recovery oriented content, any videos that promote disordered eating should be removed, and content that lays in the gray area in between should have its tags removed and be flagged with a trigger warning and recovery resources. TikTok displays the following message when users use worrisome hashtags (such as #proana), however users often use similar hashtags with small misspellings to avoid this problem.

Considering how much proana content is slipping through the cracks, they may want to try more directing modding.

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