Banned Body Image Hashtag Still Thrives on Instagram—Here’s Where It’s Most Prevalent
Women defaced the banners with graffiti and stickers: “Stop encouraging women to starve themselves,” read one of the tags in London. “This oppresses women,” read one in New York City. Protesters argued that the ad’s depiction of a slim woman in a string bikini promoted an unrealistic body image while equating swimsuits with one body type: thin.
A new analysis of hashtags suggests that people who live near sunny beaches and other temperate areas where donning a swimsuit may be more common are also the most likely to be openly body image–conscious on social media. Among U.S. states, California racked up the highest proportion of Instagram posts tagged #fitspo (the term is a combination of the words “fit” and “inspiration”)—more than 220—per 100,000 residents, followed by Hawaii and Florida. New York, New Jersey, and Nevada—which is landlocked but home to dozens of pool parties in Las Vegas—also scored high in mentions and variations of the hashtag #fitspo.
The report was conducted by PsychGuides.com, a mental health website run by Sovereign Health Group treatment centers. Between January 2012 and February 2015, researchers downloaded and analyzed the locations of more than 330,000 posts on Instagram that included variations of the divisive body image hashtags #thinspo (a portmanteau of the words “thin” and “inspiration”) and #fitspo.
Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest banned the #thinspo hashtag in 2012 following concerns that it promoted an unrealistic body image and could lead to eating disorders. “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; to cut, harm themselves, or commit suicide will result in a disabled account without warning,” the company said in a statement.
Yet, #thinspo still shows up online, albeit under various altered spellings. Rhode Island, South Carolina, Kentucky, Illinois, and Alaska are the states that boasted the highest proportion of Instagram images tagged as a variant of #thinspo—about five per 100,000 residents. Because Kentucky is one of the most obese states in the nation, researchers found little evidence of a correlation between the state’s obesity levels and its interest in #thinspo images, which often depict tiny waists, bony hips, and thigh gaps.
Some see #fitspo as a fitness-oriented alternative—one that encourages exercise, nutrition, strength, and well-being—but the hashtag has been equally controversial. Critics say the social media trend—which often accompanies photos of women working out at the gym or smiling at their leafy greens—fetishizes food and exercise and can lead to unhealthy behaviors.
There’s little research linking the hashtags #thinspo and #fitspo to cases of eating disorders, but a study published in the European Eating Disorder Review in 2010 showed that college women who visited pro–eating disorder websites tended to change their behavior and consume fewer calories than those who did not.