Instagram: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Part 1)

Take a picture.
Choose a digital filter.
Write a caption.

Now just wait for the "likes" and comments to roll in. These are the basic steps involved in successfully uploading a picture onto Instagram, a social networking service that allows iPhone and android users to take pictures and videos and share them with friends and other users on a variety of other social networking services such as Facebook, and Twitter. As with any social networking service, there is potential for good, bad, and some really ugly situations, and we see all three of these when it comes to Instagram and its effect on body image. I would like to explore the not so pleasant of these three parts: the bad and the ugly. And oh yes, it does get ugly. Especially when we find that Instagram is being used as a breeding ground for pro- anorexia and pro- bulimia support groups.

A recent trend in the Instagram world is the use of pictures and profiles as “thinspiration”. Many are posting pictures of extremely thin individuals and emaciated bodies as inspiration for their weight loss and appearance goals. The power of these images however does not just lie in the picture itself, but that the fact that they have facilitated the creation of pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia communities where people are promoting and reinforcing each other’s harmful and dangerous behavior through the amount of likes and the comments they post on these pictures. These users measure their self worth in the amount of ‘likes’ that they can accumulate, and in others ‘liking’ and commenting on these “thinspiration” posts they are normalizing mental illness and reinforcing behaviors that can be dangerous to their health, and this is a serious problem.

Instagram has taken some action in response the pro-eating disorder content that has been developing. They have completely banned the searching of hashtags “#thinspo” as well as “#pro-anorexia” and “#pro-bulimia”, and now display a content warning for those searching graphic pictures and provide a link to the National Eating Disorders Association website. Along with these efforts they have also removed thousands of photos of emaciated bodies and pictures promoting or glorifying self-harm. This however has not solved the entire problem, as pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia communities have found their way around these restrictions to continue to reach their audience. They have changed their hashtags by a single letter or added a number such as “#th1nspo”. These restrictions put in place by Instagram have just pushed Pro-anorexia and bulimia users to get creative with the specific names and hashtags they use, but it has not eliminated these groups all together.

So have these social media bans and restrictions been effective? While they have made accessing harmful images and promoting harmful behaviours more difficult, it is clear that users have still found a way around this. What is important to realize is that the real power to create change lies in the individual users themselves, for they have the power to choose what accounts they follow and the images they want to see, as well as what comments to post and which pictures to like.

For more information on this topic, see the following articles:

Julia Antonini is community outreach volunteer at the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) in Toronto, ON, Canada.