Even though the media have reported on "thinspiration" -- a.k.a. thinspo -- websites for more than a decade, one of the first direct acknowledgements I've seen that boys and men are taking part in these online communities and social media streams was in a recent interview with Lynn Grefe, president and CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, in response to a "Good Morning America" segment on adolescent girls ogling online images of "thigh gaps," or open spaces between inner thighs revealed when thin-legged people stand with their knees together.
"Guys are doing this too, by the way," Greffe said, in regard to thinspo. "They have their own fetishes and obsessions about body appearance."
Offline, men and boys comprise a minority of anorexics, but their proportion is swiftly on the rise, which is why it's concerning that male thinspo seems to have been so blatantly overlooked. Ten years ago, clinicians estimated that men made up around 5 percent of the anorexic population; today, it's between 20 and 30 percent, as reported in a 2012 GQ article on the recent and continuing rise of anorexia among males. Even more troubling, up to 75 percent of male sufferers may not seek treatment.
The longstanding exclusive focus on female pathology reflects eating disorders are often considered so-called women's diseases to the point that the anorexia among men is offhandedly referred to as "manorexia." The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual includes amenorrhea, or absence of a menstrual cycle, for instance, as a clinical criterion for anorexia nervosa, and indeed, women do make up a majority of eating disorder sufferers. Just like the clinical population, the online thinspo/pro ana population is dominated by women and girls as well. A 2010 study conducted at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health examined 180 active pro-anorexic (pro-ana) and pro-eating disorder (pro-ED) websites and found that among those with available administrator bios, 98 percent were run by females. Moreover, searching social media sites for common thinspo tags like #thinpiration and #proana serves up photos of far more extremely thin women than men.
Since 2012, major social media sites Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook have started cracking down in earnest on thinspo pictures, posts and communities sprouting up on their platforms to ensure that they weren't promoting pro-ana, (pro-ED messages. Although weeding out thinspo on the Internet is a lot like playing an endless game of Whac-A-Mole, the sites nevertheless have begun policing post and image tags more closely, enforcing anti-self-harm user agreements and redirecting visitors seeking out pro-ana content to online resources, including the National Eating Disorders Association. And while these are healthy improvements, virtually all of these initiatives are aimed squarely at young women and girls, with barely a word mentioned about harmful thinspo directed toward and circulated by men and boys.
Evidence that guys are engaging with pro-ana thinspo sites and social media isn't hard to find. A 2009 survey conducted among Belgium teens, for instance, found that 5.9 percent of the boys had visited a pro-ana website, compared to 12 percent of girls. Searching social media tags such as #malethinspo and #skinnyboy also pulls up plenty of images of emaciated men and male models. On top of that, page-one Google results for "women thinspo" are full of cautionary media stories about pro-ana communities. That starkly contrasts how Googling "male thinspo" brings up no such headlines or warnings. Sheltered from online censorship thanks to gendered concepts of eating disorders, that extreme thinspo directed at men appears to flourish online with little oversight.
The thinspo gender gap further narrows when hypermuscular "fitspo" (fitness inspiration) is also factored in. Whereas thinspo drives unhealthy food restriction and self-harm, extreme fitspo has been linked to compulsive exercise, steroid use and body dysmorphia. Studies have suggested that heterosexual men in particular are more prone to "bigorexia," or a disordered pursuit of a hypermuscular, masculine ideal as modeled by childhood GI Joe figurines that sport six-pack abs alongside their AK-47s. Male eating disorder specialist Dr. Arnold Andersen told the New York Times in 2000,"I think that men are simply following a decade or two behind women in terms of being exposed to body images that are increasingly difficult to achieve.'' Statistics have borne out that prediction, since in 2012 a study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 40 percent of middle school boys "regularly exercised with the goal of increasing muscle mass," with some taking steroids and unregulated supplements that could stunt their growth. Their social media motivators? Fitspo and online bodybuilding forums.
In response to that study of muscularity striving among middle school boys, New York magazine responded, "we're hopeful that the more people know that body-image issues are not just the domain of vain women, the sooner the medical establishment will offer more comprehensive and preventative care." It's also time, in that case, for us to pay more attention to how those "body image issues" manifested on thinspo and fitspo forums are strongly linked to male eating disorders, compulsive exercise and body dysmorphia as well.