A recent study investigates social media posts on body ideals such as the thinspiration trend to determine how they affect mental health in youth.

Since the dawn of mass media, it seems that body ideals have been fed to the general public through mediums such as magazines, newspapers, and television. Over the last century, these body ideals have mostly been presented as thin bodies and are associated with femininity. It has already been established that these body ideals produce an unrealistic and often unachievable depiction of feminine beauty. Despite being impractical, many girls and women become dissatisfied with their body image as a result of these body ideals that they are continuously exposed to. Body dissatisfaction can lead individuals to develop unhealthy weight-controlling behaviours, such as binge eating, and to suffer from depression and have low self-esteem.

For years, these negative body ideals have been linked to the mass media, however, social media is now playing an ever-growing role. The difference with social media compared to the mass media is that this technology allows its users to not only receive but to contribute information.  With social media being a source of information as well as providing a platform for interaction, some argue that this has increased the exposure of young women to unhealthy body ideals. Research is urgently needed to assess the impact of exposure to unrealistic or unhealthy body ideals on social media on the physical and mental health of today’s youth.

This study, conducted in the UK and published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, has carried out a content analysis on a sample of images obtained from three social media platforms via the hashtags “#thinspiration”, “#fitspiration” and “#bonespiration”. These images are to inspire certain body ideals. Thinspiration refers to images shared on social media to encourage users to be thin and bonespiration refers to images that inspire users to be extremely thin and to have protruding bones. Fitspiration, on the other hand, refers to images that encourage users to be fit and healthy.

By searching the hashtag “thinspiration” on media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and We Heart It, a user will come across other hashtags linked to the pro-eating disorder community (proED), such as proana. The pro-ED community argue that eating disorders are a lifestyle choice, not an illness.

Searching the hashtag “bonespo” on Instagram will give rise to over 130,000 posts associated with bonespiration, and these posts are being updated on a daily basis. Bonespiration has been subject to animosity from the public, but due to its firm presence mainly in the pro-ED community it is still fairly unknown. This means that bonespiration has not received any consideration within the academic literature and has not been studied in relation to thinspiration, and the characteristics of the bodies featured in these posts remained unknown until this recent study.

In opposition, “fitspiration” has been introduced by the fitness community as a proposed healthy alternative to thinspiration and bonespiration. Through images of exercise and healthy nutrition, it aims to inspire users to achieve a fit body. Fitspiration has been viewed by the public as a more positive form of media content.  However, recently, even ”fitspiration” has begun to receive more negative feedback as various studies have found that it can increase negative mood, body dissatisfaction, and decreased self-esteem. The possible reason for this is that the general characteristics of fitspiration give rise to many images of bodies that are thin and toned. These images also contained some degree of objectifying the bodies within them.

During this study 734 images were analysed, 189 images with fitspiration tags, 269 images with thinspiration tags and 276 images with bonespiration tags. The results of the study found that fitspiration gave rise to less thin and sexually objectified bodies than thinspiration and bonespiration. When thinspiration was compared against bonespiration many similarities were observed, but bonespiration had less muscles and more bone protrusions which suggests that bonespiration presents a more extreme form of thinspiration.

The findings of this study propose fitspiration content is a less unhealthy body ideal than thinspiration and bonespiration. However, there was a proportion of the fitspiration images which were similar to thinspiration in that they idealised the extremely thin body type, and the authors state that users should use fitspiration with caution. Future research is needed to further investigate these body ideals on social media, presented within these groups and the motivation behind them. The authors suggest developing young people’s resilience to this type of content using media literacy programs.  In addition, these findings have important implications for parents and health care providers. It is important to know how easily obtainable this type of content is for young women today as it may have serious implications for their physical and mental health.

Written by Jade Marie Evans, MPharm, Medical Writer

Reference: Talbot C et al. (2017). A content analysis of thinspiration,fitspiration, and bonespiration imagery onsocial media. Available: Last accessed 17th Oct 2017.

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