Wrong Way, Right Intentions: A Response To Tumblr’s Change in Policy
Last week, Tumblr staff solicited feedback on a plan to ban content that promoting eating disorders (or — to be technical in a way I think is important — the behaviors associated with them), as well as content that promotes self-harm and suicide.
It is very difficult — as someone who has worked to recover from these issues, someone who remembers – viscerally – how painful this content can be, and someone who knows so many dear people still immersed in that pain — not to support this ban. And yet. I don’t.
Over the 10 years that I’ve been in recovery, my perspective on this issue has changed radically. I’ve gone from adamantly opposing pro-ana content to adamantly opposing its censorship. In light of Tumblr’s announcement, I’d like to reintroduce some of the reasons for that shift.
1) We don’t actually know what causes these problems.
Tumblr’s concern — like so many servers before it — is that this kind of content promotes eating disorders, self-injury, and suicide. The idea is that, allowed to spread, this content causes (and exacerbates) mental illness. But we don’t actually know what causes anorexia, bulimia, or self-harm. If we did, we’d be able to prevent, treat, and cure these issues the way we do diseases we understand. (Think chicken pox or polio). There is plenty of anecdotal evidence supporting the idea that these sites cause or compound struggles with self-harm and EDs. I do not for a second support the havoc they’ve wreaked on individual lives. But any person in recovery can offer similar anecdotes impugning school health classes, TV movies, and “recovery” memoirs. To suggest that this content has a more significant role in causing EDs and self-harm than other forms of media is not fact-based activism, and it’s dangerous for us to pretend it is. Working to censor this content, without knowing what it actually does is an invitation to unintended consequences. The road to hell, etc.
2) Pro-ana sites do not differ, significantly, from “pro-recovery” sites.
I haven’t seen the research on self-harm, but I’d expect it to mirror the research on eating disorders, which suggests more overlap than difference between “pro-recovery” and “pro-ana” sites. Many pro-ana sites speak about eating disorders as illnesses, many suggest seeking treatment, and many urge those who do not have eating disorders away from both forums and behaviors. Likewise, pro-recovery forums are often extremely triggering for people in recovery. Participants in those forums have been shown to find ways of signifying body size and severity of behaviors, even when numbers and other “outright” triggers are banned. In short, while we’re constantly subjected to this notion of “recovering good, pro-ana bad” — the reality of where one stops and the other ends is murky. It’s a much more ambivalent spectrum than the calls for bans suggest.
3) Pro-ana content also does not differ significantly from “acceptable” (mainstream) media.
The “thinspiration” photos we’re so quick to find appalling are nearly always lifted — or based on — images from mainstream media. Likewise, the supposedly ‘pro-ana’ catchphrase “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” originated as a Weight Watchers slogan. Many of the recommended practices in these communities are lifted from “mainstream” diet publications. Even “recovery” sites and projects post this content on occasion, if only to invite its condemnation. How is it that the same content is neutral in a diet magazine, groundbreaking from pro-recovery activists, and unacceptable on a pro-ana site?
To clarify, I do not ask these questions to suggest this content is not problematic. To argue that we should not take issue with slogans like “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” or photos of emaciated bodies. I bring it up to ask why the outrage stops with pro-ana. Why is there no furious rallying against Weight Watchers? Why, when there are multiple moves to criminalize moderation of pro-ana sites, is no one calling for the arrest of those producing The Biggest Loser? When will Yahoo! — which pulled all pro-ana content in 2001 — be pressured to pull all content linked to Jenny Craig?
As long as we accept this content elsewhere, we scapegoat pro-ana, while allowing the larger culture carte blanche to inflict the same harm.
4. We cannot advocate for people who struggle with self-harm and eating disorders by vilifying them.
If we understand that these behaviors are life-threatening, if we wish to offer resources to people who are struggling, how can we write off a whole section of that population as bad seeds who don’t see the error of their ways? Even in communities that are working to see this kind of content addressed, altered, or removed across the board, “pro-ana” is often used as shorthand to argue that certain content is unacceptable, offensive, or dangerous. The implication is that such content would not be harmful if it were not associated with anorexia. But that stigmatization of the disease does not end with pro-ana content. Even if we’re comfortable supporting only those sufferers who define and interact with their ED or self-harm in ways we approve, we cannot ignore the harm attacks on pro-ana have on others with EDs. Disgust at pro-ana breeds disgust at eating-disordered behaviors in general. The hatred generalizes to hatred toward skinny models, hatred toward “superficial” high-schoolers on diets, and hatred toward every single one of us who has this struggle, regardless of whether we share (any form of) the pro-ana conception. If it is not enough to know it harms a portion of people with these struggles, is it enough to recognize that it, in fact, harms us all?
I do not argue against bans like this as an argument that we do nothing. We can (and must) keep working to increase access to treatment. To decrease stigma. To support research on the causes and effective treatment for problems like self-injury and eating disorders. We can support (and use) trigger warnings and html ‘cuts’ to encourage readers to what content they engage with (and when). We can support each other in managing triggers when we come across them.
But we don’t need to impose more limits on people struggling. We need to work harder to limit their struggles.
Note: Since this post was written, Tumblr has altered their plans slightly. The new policy is available for comment here.