In the latest post on its Behold photo blog, Slate waded into ongoing debates around “thinspo”—pro-anorexia imagery posted to foster online communities around maintaining dangerously low body weights—by posting photos that fit the designation. The post profiles a project by UK-based photographer Michelle Sank that focuses on body modification in young people. One of the nine photos used in the post depicts identical twins: the caption says that one of the young women is recovering from anorexia, and her curvier sister has had a boob job. Because it depicts twins, the photo essentially shows the same person at two weights. In the thinspo world (as far as I can understand it without wading in), this would be a cautionary image—don’t gain weight—rather than an artistic image, or one that offers a broader commentary on young people’s body dissatisfaction.
The decision to highlight Sank’s series, and that particular image, on a mainstream site flings Slate into the discussion of whether or not pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia messaging should be policed in the digital space. The most recent recap of this I’ve seen was in The Nation a few weeks back, where Chloe Angyal wrote about a Change.org campaign aimed at convincing Twitter to make finding thinspo harder:
Pinterest, the online image pin-board that is basically a thinspo-seeker’s dream come true, has already made it impossible to find boards and pins with the search term “thinspo.” If one tries, they’ll see the message, “Eating disorders are not lifestyle choices, they are mental disorders that if left untreated can cause serious health problems or could even be life-threatening,” as well as the website and telephone number for the National Eating Disorders Association. As Nina Bahadur notes, after Tumblr and Pinterest implemented anti-thinspiration policies, many in the thinspiration community began using Instagram to share “thinspiring” images of skeletally thin women. Instagram, too, has now changed its policies to make this more difficult. Twitter should most certainly do the same.
It can be hard to draw a line between documenting and exploiting; I wrote a piece recently about Angelo Merendino, who photographed his young wife as she died from breast cancer. Activists say that his images are important, because cancer is too often depicted through stories about strong, joyous survivors, rather than as a still-incurable disease that kills. A friend living with metastatic cancer, though, told me the images make her angry, because she thinks it’s opportunistic to breach the privacy of people in severe pain. It’s also a terrifying glimpse into what the future may hold for her.
Photographing eating disorder sufferers is a similar conundrum; there are projects like Lauren Greenfield’s 2006 HBO documentary, Thin, which depicted sufferers in an inpatient program as three-dimensional people battling demons. Greenfield’s portrayal could conceivably create greater compassion in those who don’t understand why anorectics don’t just eat a sandwich. Women in the throes of an eating disorder could watch the same work and use it as a guidebook to help them restrict their intake even further. Greenfield’s site, though, makes it clear where her intentions lie; she describes Thin as “a portrait of an illness that is frustrating in its complexity and devastating in the pain it inflicts on its sufferers and those who care for them.”
Sank’s work doesn’t feel like it has the same good-faith intentions. On her site, she writes that the project profiled on Slate, called “In My Skin,” looks at “young people under 25 in the UK who are challenging body image.” Body image is how someone sees herself; an anorectic can look like a skeleton to an outside observer but remain convinced they are pudgy. Self-starvation isn’t “challenging” body image, it’s capitulating to it. Further, it’s a stretch to include body modifications from gender transition to anorexia under an umbrella mission—by veering all over the map, Sank risks conflating transgender youths with the mentally ill.
The cringeworthy fuzziness to Sank’s work makes Slate’s decision to feature it even more questionable. Yes, this is just one image on an oft-updated photo blog on a site that’s slammed with new content daily. But as Angyal noted, anorexia is the most fatal mental illness, one whose sufferers never lack for inspiration to remain sick in our thin-obsessed society. “Mainstream media makes implicit connections between skinniness and sexiness, discipline, fitness, beauty and worth,” she wrote. “Thinspiration simply dispenses with the implications.” The way Slate presented Sank’s work, it’s unclear whether the site is thinspo-mongering or not. And that’s a problem.