The toxic message in Facebook teen health and fitness sites

I work with thousands of teen girls across Australia every year. So I am always interested to note online trends as these provide an insight into their emerging interests; and nothing seems to be engaging teen girls more at the moment than the incredibly fast growing ”Teen Health/ Fitness” inspiration sites on Facebook.

There are at least two of these launching each week, and within a matter of weeks they gain tens of thousands of predominantly teen girl fans.

We might be tempted to think this is a good thing. After all isn’t there a much-talked-about obesity crisis? Aren’t we currently considering weighing children in schools as part of our response to this deadly epidemic? If our girls are finally taking matters into their own hands, isn’t that to be ”liked”, and ”shared”?

But these sites are very problematic. First, we have no idea who is administrating the pages and if they are even qualified to hand out advice (and after reading the advice posted I think it’s fairly safe to say that many most certainly are not qualified).

Second, all the pages I’ve seen are often nothing more than Thinspiration sites – sites that glorify unhealthy eating practices and become communities where girls with eating disorders can ”feed” each other’s illnesses by sharing tips and encouraging each other to stave off hunger and exhaustion.

Advice offered on one claiming to offer ”Healthy living tips” includes: ”Work out twice as much as your skinny roommate” and ”Look in the mirror and choose not to see any changes” (in order to feel motivated to work even harder). The research clearly shows that online sites that offer this type of advice normalise unhealthy relationships with food and exercise, and may trigger the onset of eating disorders in vulnerable young people.

And finally, these pages aren’t supporting girls to get fit or healthy so that they will feel good, but rather so they will simply look not just thin, but sexy.

One page, aimed at girls 13-25, tells its fans they should ”cultivate your curves – they may be dangerous but they won’t be avoided”. The cover photo shows a girl’s very large breasts in a skimpy white bikini (I’m not sure how you could exercise your way to those) and has its profile picture the almost obligatory shot of a headless girl (never a somebody, just a body) in skimpy undies holding up a midriff top to show her abdominal muscles.

Qualified Health and Fitness coach Amelia Burton explains: ”The difference between promoting healthy eating and exercise from a place of respect and love for your body versus a voyeuristic desire to be stick thin or to fit some sexy ideal is often blurred. And it makes me very angry as healthy diet and exercise offers so much more than just hot abs and bouncing breasts! For teen girls in particular, a balanced diet and sensible exercise program will assist them in many ways other than just the aesthetic: including eliminating stress, regulating sleep patterns and giving them the energy they need to study, work part time and party with their friends.”

But it’s not surprising that so many teen girls would like pages that promise them if they can only be less, they will get more – more attention, more love. After all, isn’t this merely a more extreme example of the very same messages the multibillion-dollar diet industry peddles to us every day in mainstream media?

History shows us that it is almost impossible to ban or regulate online content. Instead, we must educate girls to be able to deconstruct unhelpful and unsafe messages, and seek more reliable sources of information on their health and fitness.

I am hopeful more young women will start to recognise that pages like this are not only limiting but toxic. I cheered on the young woman who posted the following comment on an image the administrator of one site in this genre had posted that spoke about the virtues of eating only salads and carrots:

”Eat some lean meat, wholegrains and vegies … and maybe your life won’t sound like a desperate struggle to exercise to get thin! What a load of crap – motivating my ass!”

And, finally, as we head into spring and are faced with the annual barrage of dieting/body policing propaganda, let’s also be good role models and show our girls that there really is more to life than tits and a six-pack.

This post was originally published in The Age, 5/9. 

N.B I did a radio interview on this topic, and my upcoming visit to speak to the parent community at Perth College, with Perth radio’s 6PR on the 6/9/12 – you may listen to this here ( because of the size of this file, it may take a few minutes to load): Radio 6PR interviews Dannielle Miller on Facebook Thinspiration sites and Enlighten’s work in WA

3 thoughts on “The toxic message in Facebook teen health and fitness sites

  1. Ella says:

    My understanding is that the fitpsiration community developed out of platforms like Tumblr/Instagram/Facebook banning thinspiration & pro-ana websites. It’s exactly the same thing, just under a different name. I’m not sure why people didn’t expect this? Pro-ana communities have been around for a decade or more – just because the terms aren’t allowed & are banned on certain websites doesn’t mean that community isn’t going to morph & find each other. A rose by any other name smells as sweet.

    What we DO need is education about eating disorders, dieting & risk factors for negative body image; not a bunch of policies that teenagers can get around in under 30 seconds. Banning pro-ana websites isn’t the answer. I don’t like pro-ana websites, but they are a support community – no matter how misdirected that is. Banning it just puts the challenge out there – just like when parents put net-nanny on the computer instead of educating young people about the risks of the internet & what behaviour is appropriate & what is not.

  2. Storm Greenhill-Brown says:

    I agree with you Ella. Education and accurate information is the absolute key to this. But you know how do teen girls believe us when we say becoming less doesn’t make you more loved and valued when sometimes they see their mums and aunties and the women that surround them drinking only juices for weeks in order to be thinner and wanting to be a lower and lower number on the scales and in dress sizes. It truly drives me crazy and when i tell teen girls otherwise, that please be you, love you, they look so relieved and they truly do glow hearing those words from a grown up. We just need to keep at it. Great post Danni.

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