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The Problem With Banning "Thinspo" Content On Instagram

It's the latest social networking tool to ban "thinspirational" content. But is that even possible?

Instagram updated its user guidelines to include a ban on "thinspo" content (images that promote eating disorders, in other words). The move follows Pinterest's widely publicized plans to do the same. But with Pinterest's ban in effect for three weeks and plenty of "thinspo" boards easily searchable, can Instagram really effectively ban this kind of content? Or is it an exercise in putting the toothpaste back in the tube?

Instagram's new guidelines read:

Don’t promote or glorify self-harm: While Instagram is a place where people can share their lives with others through photographs, any account found encouraging or urging users to embrace anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders; or to cut, harm themselves, or commit suicide will result in a disabled account without warning. We believe that communication regarding these behaviors in order to create awareness, come together for support and to facilitate recovery is important, but that Instagram is not the place for active promotion or glorification of self-harm.

The company will enforce the ban by making hashtags "that actively promote self-harm, such as 'thinspiration,' 'probulimia,' and 'proanorexia,' " unsearchable. Posts about eating disorders that aren't necessarily promotional will come with a warning and direct users to nationaleatingdisorders.org.

Eating disorders are potentially deadly illnesses; according to the Eating Disorder Foundation, about 27 percent of girls ages 12 to 18 exhibit signs of eating disorder, while 31 percent of college women do. But Instagram and Pinterest have a long fight ahead of them to eradicate much of this content from their networks, and it's unclear how soon — or even if — they'll be able to do it.

Even if you can't search "thinspo" on Instagram itself, you can still search its photos for "thinspo" on web interfaces like Webstagram. While a search for "thinspo" on Gramfeed, another Instagram web interface that allows you to browse Instagram photos, returns no results, you can still search "thin" and turn up content that looks like a lot of the thinspo stuff widely available on the Internet. You can also search Twitter for "thinspo" and turn up Instagram images that may or may not be pro-ana, but certainly look that way. (As for Instagram's pre-existing regulatory practices, well, "Don’t share photos of illegal content" is a guideline, and yet Rihanna's Instagram feed remains active following last week's "is it pot or coke?" incident.)

Also, many "thinspirational" images come from, well, catalogues and fashion magazines — and though they may not carry "#thinspo" tags, those definitely won't go away. That doesn't mean that Victoria's Secret or "Vogue" models suffer from eating disorders — or that those and other companies that hire them promote eating disorders — but the photos still provide social networkers with plenty of pro-skinny content to coalesce around. While the causes of eating disorders are complex, studies show that media like that can play a role independent of social media. And a 2011 study out of the University of Haifa in Israel suggests that the more time young women spend in front of social networking sites, the more likely they are to develop an eating disorder.

Claire Mysko, who runs the National Eating Disorder Association's social networking site Proud 2 Be Me says the main goal of these bans is to provide eating disorder sufferers other places to go for information about eating disorders, and support groups to help them through it. "People who are struggling need to feel like they’re not alone," Mysko says. "When you eliminate a community for people, you have to provide a positive alternative. We’re saying thinspo is dangerous, but we recognize they’re providing a sense of community, and we want to fill that void." (While NEDA worked with Facebook and Tumblr on their bans, and advised Pinterest on theirs, Mysko did not believe they had contact with Instagram about their ban.)

Despite the recent hype over "thinspo" content on the Internet — which exists outside of social networks that have banned it, mind you — it will never completely go away. "Eliminating all 'thinspo' content from internet — that’s not a realistic goal," Mysko acknowledges. But the bans are "a start," she says. "When huge companies like this take a stand and say this isn’t okay, that sets a positive tone." (Pinterest and Instagram did not respond to request for comment.)

Ultimately policing this kind of content will probably come down to the community members that abide by the community guidelines and encourage their network to act similarly, or reporting those who don't. And establishing that practice could take a while.