Exploring her favorite topics on social media, a young girl may stumble upon all sorts of unexpected images. A new UC Davis study systematically analyzed content that appears on Twitter and Pinterest under two innocuous tags commonly used by those trying to lose weight: "thinspiration" and "thinspo." Nearly half the images featured headless bodies of women and predominantly focused on the pelvis, abdomen, or thighs, while also tending to be sexually suggestive.

Yet not all social media is alike, with the two tools differing in key ways.

Pinterest tended to show images that had “a little more muscularity while focusing on some kind of fitness, they were less sexualized, and they showed more heads,” Jannath Ghaznavi, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication, told Medical Daily. Yet, on Twitter, she and her co-researcher, Dr. Laramie Taylor, an associate professor at UC Davis, discovered images that were, in her words, “bonier, more segmented, and more sexualized.”

Why should this be concerning? Twitter has a younger audience who may be more impressionable.

“If we are exposed to images where just a body part is featured, and those images are also sexualized, we begin to think about ourselves as just an instrument intended to expressly serve the purpose of others,” Ghaznavi explained. “And it leads to a lot of health issues as well.”

Specifically, past studies found such “objectified” pictures of women can lead to depression, anxiety, body shame, and sexual dysfunction in some female viewers. While the current study focused on girls and women, “men are objectified in different ways and it is harmful to them as well,” Ghaznavi said, citing a past study that found the classic magazine shots of men showing off biceps or ab muscles impacts romantic confidence.

Yesterday and Today

Next to Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter are among the most popular social media tools used by United States' women (25 percent of female Internet users over 18) and teens (eight percent of Internet users between the ages 12 and 17). For the current study, the researchers coded each image they found with a "thinspiration" or "thinspo" tag for image type, image purpose, image content, body depiction, additional tags, explicitness of attire, sexual suggestiveness, and social endorsement (comments or shares). Across both websites, the majority of pics depicted the pelvis (80 percent), abdomen (80 percent), and/or thighs (78 percent). More than half, 57.3 percent, were partially clad and a full three-quarters appeared sexually suggestive.

Why might sexualized content on social media be more harmful than the same pictures appearing on standard (or "static") media?

“It’s a whole other level of engagement,” Ghaznavi told Medical Daily, explaining that with social media, you can easily go beyond passively viewing an image in order to collect, retweet, "favorite," or comment on a picture. And naturally enough, more engagement leads to greater impact. “Another risk here is that a young girl or woman will see that a picture has 50 or 60 likes and … this may be construed as positive reinforcement,” Ghaznavi said, noting social cognitive theory indicates other people and communities bolster our learning, deepen our impressions.

Asked how yesterday’s pro-anorexia websites compared to today’s thinspo social media tags, Ghaznavi pointed out that it’s not as easy to stumble into a website as a tagged pic on social media: “When I’m on social media, some of the tags that are accompanying these images are not just thinspo but ‘diet,’ ‘healthy,’ or ‘fitness.’”

By putting a bunch of hashtags and labels on a picture, a so-called pro-ana (anorexia) or pro-mia (bulimia) message gains mainstream access and reaches a wider community. Acknowledging social media has made attempts to regulate this content, Ghaznavi points out that people unfortunately find ways around this.

"In Twitter, about eight percent of the 'thinspiration' images also had pro-eating disorder tags," she said, explaining how "thinspo" was linked to more harmful content most likely "because it is a more evasive term that can avoid detection."  While she notes her analysis is preliminary, the results of her study should encourage parents to monitor their children’s social media activity.  

Source: Ghaznavi J, Taylor LD. Bones, body parts, and sex appeal: An analysis of #thinspiration images on popular social media. Body Image. 2015.