What's old is new again. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current revived debate over so-called "thinspiration" and "pro-ana/mia" content on the Internet. Following similar decisions by Pinterest and Tumblr, Instagram has officially banned any content determined to promote self-harm. While the new rule applies to self-mutilators and others who share images of their risky and dangerous activity, the main reason for amending the content guidelines is to target the increasing number of images (often with text making the intent clear) that appear to promote eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, using hashtags such as #thinspo.
These images often feature extremely thin, mostly female, people in revealing attire, or other times obese people, again mostly women. If there's text on the image it's typically either denigrating to the overweight or it celebrates thinness, though sometimes it's both.
If this sounds familiar, that's because it's not too different from Yahoo's similar purge of pro-ana/mia pages in the early 2000's. At this time, few were aware any kind of movement. Thanks to the usual discriminatory beliefs held by many regarding any kind of mental illness, but especially one that's all too often erroneously associated with vanity and shallowness, outsiders were shocked to discover a community that shared stories of their experiences, fears, and hopes and yes, also the current status of their body or what their relationship is with ED (contrary to popular belief, some recovered and recovering sufferers of ED have continued to participate in such forums).
Of course, there's a great deal of dialogue that is extremely upsetting in the majority of these forums, and in general the community is not thought to be conducive to fighting ED or reducing harm in a mentally or physically healthy way. But whether the Internet presence of pro-ana/mia is ultimately a destructive influence on those reaching out to those with similar life experiences and attitudes towards food, and usually exercise as well, is a separate matter from what the responsible way to address it should be.
Unfortunately, there's little consensus on that matter either. To be safe, most sites and services have banned any related material. Livejournal notably has never objected to even the most disturbing pro-ana/mia content. Facebook won't allow it, though, and neither will these three newer sites. It's not really a censorship issue; all of these sites and companies are well within their right to monitor content and can choose to allow or forbid whatever they wish.
And it's far from a terrible idea to remove some of these images and writings, provided there's another forum willing to associate with them. However, the rationale that Instagram uses for this decision is troubling for a number of reasons, and this rationale reflects pervasive social attitudes towards ED specifically. Characterizing pro-ana/mia content as "self-harm" is reductive and often inaccurate. Certainly, sufferers of ED are vulnerable to a range of serious threats to their health, some of them potentially fatal. They are also suffering from a disease that nobody chooses to develop, and this is part of how some cope with the disorder. There are absolutely images with the #thinspo hashtag that depict self-harm by any definition.
But it's clear that it won't merely be the most extreme images that are removed; the intention is to remove the any semblance of pro-ana/mia content from Instagram.
Which, again, is up to those responsible for promoting whatever set of values the site chooses, if any at all. It's their choice of words that suggests a paternalistic view of ED victims, one that is consistent with how much of society regards them. Misogyny plays a large role, perhaps the most important one, as anorexia and bulimia sufferers are overwhelmingly female (though there are growing numbers of males as well). Dismissing such a complex and devastating disorder and expression of thoughts associated with it as "self-harm" is also typical of how sufferers of other mental illnesses are dismissed and reduced to their most outwardly apparent symptoms.
There are several good reasons for not allowing this sort of material. Many images are psychologically triggering to current and former sufferers of ED as well as their friends and family. They're also simply offensive in some cases when images of fat people are ridiculed or made to look disgusting. It's inconsistent with a site that presumably seeks to be inclusive, enjoyable, and accessible to every type of person. Banning images of what can definitively be considered "self-harm" may be equally important and is an appropriate rule in its own right. Of course, there would be overlap with some of the more extreme #thinspo images. And many of the other images with pro-ana/mia content may be inconsistent with however Instagram wants to be seen, though for other reasons. The new rule is insulting and dismissive towards a group that has merely migrated from one forum to the next, without any one of them taking the opportunity to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.