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Under the Influence: How Instagram Propagates Eating Disorders (2019 Walden Award Winner)

the Instagram logo squeezed in the middle by a tape measure

Originally presented at the Annual Conference of the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association. November 2019, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

As technology continues to progress, so do the ways in which we interact with it. As a result, a unique problem has formed: Instagram, the popular social media app, is causing more young women to have eating disorders. I posit there are many different reasons why this is linked—namely the rise of influencers, and by them using apps such as Facetune, and their promotions of harmful products such as detox or fit teas.

Instagram was created and released in 2010, and since then there has been a steady rise in eating disorders and disordered eating among young women. The difference from teens in 2019 and teens 2009 is precisely this rise of technology. Years prior, it was a “secret” knowledge that magazines were airbrushed, and further, one had to actively seek out magazines, or happen upon them in stores. However, today, the masses are exposed to a constant feed of edited photos, many of which aren’t noted as being edited.

To begin, there are several different eating disorders and disordered eating habits that need to be addressed. Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder focused on weight loss, counting calories, and heavy restriction. There is an intense fear of gaining weight, so much so that they will go to great lengths to not eat, often hiding food, or lying about eating habits. Some people with the disorder also exercise compulsively, purge via vomiting and laxatives, and/or binge eat.1 Bulimia is an eating disorder characterized by binge eating and then purging to compensate for binge eating. Binge eating is seen, medically, as a loss of control while eating, feeling that you can’t stop, or eating a larger than average amount of food in a restricted time. Purging is done by vomiting, or with laxatives.2 Orthorexia is a disordered eating habit focused on eating “healthy” or “pure” foods. Orthorexia hasn’t been officially added to the DSM as an eating disorder, but by all accounts is. An example of orthorexia would be someone cutting out all carbs and sugars, showing agitation or panic when their safe or healthy choices aren’t available, and following a high number of healthy lifestyle blogs or social media accounts.3 All of the above disorders affect all types of people, and all types of bodies. Closely tied into these disorders is Body Dysmorphia, which is an intense obsession based off of hyperfixation on real or perceived flaws. The person suffering may begin to isolate due to this, and their quality of life will be impacted. They will more than likely have panic attacks based off of their appearances.4 As you can see, many of these eating disorders are closely tied together, often making an exact diagnosis difficult. The heavy use of social media worsens these disorders.

Further, we get into more niche descriptors. Two main themes are Thinspo and Fitspo. Thinspo (thinspiration) is images showing dangerously thin people, often used as goals or devices to keep one “on track.” In years prior, one would have to go to “pro-ana” (Pro-Anorexia) websites to see these images, or, search the hashtag #proana on websites. As of 2019, Instagram has banned #proana and #thinspo, however, to get around this, people have begun to modify the tags, such as: #notthinspo or adding their name in front of thinspo.

More modernly, we see the “Fitspo” tag. Fitspo (fitspiration) is images showing insanely “fit” people, again often used as goals or devices to keep one “on track.” Fitspo images are not filtered, and in fact, often show up in one’s “discover” or “explore” feed, regardless of the person’s search history or those they follow. While both fit into showing a disordered eating lifestyle, the main difference is their reception. In 2016, Boepple and Thompson coded 50 thinspiration and 50 fitspiration websites for eight specific messages indicative of disordered eating. They concluded that while fitspiration contained less content than did thinspiration, both types of site contained similar potentially dangerous thematic content in terms of dietary restriction, objectification, and weight stigmatization.5

Continuing with differences, the ideal body form of the early 2000s was something like this: a thin body that could be displayed as punk or soft, and most often the bodies had a thigh gap. Due to the slim nature, many had smaller chests. Some prominent examples are Portia Ross and Kate Moss. In 2009 Kate Moss is the model who famously said, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” The above body type was largely impossible for young girls to achieve—especially when factoring in the growth of puberty.

However, today the ideal body is something like this: large bust, tiny waist, large rear, and a flat stomach. Some prominent examples are the Kardashian/Jenners, who largely set the tone for influencers. While the body type prior was nearly impossible, this one is certainly impossible for young women to achieve—it almost defies natural human biology. This isn’t to say that extremely thin still isn’t being marketed. However, the new body type of influencers is the body type that most teens and young women are trying to achieve. Many popular celebrities such as Cardi B, Amber Rose, Iggy Azalea, and Kim Kardashian have all promoted FitTea’s as will be explicated later.

With the rise of Instagram and Instagram “Influencers” there comes a rise in eating disorders in young women. In fact, the number of young women with eating disorders has doubled since the 1960s.6 As of 2001, 8 million Americans suffer from eating disorders; approximately 90 percent of them are young women.7 Another study showed that higher Instagram use was associated with a greater tendency towards orthorexia nervosa, with no other social media channel having this effect.8 How is this Instagram and influencer specific, and not just body standards in general? As of May 2019, 75% of 18-24 year-olds use Instagram.9 Further, we see influencers lying about plastic surgery and face tuning and promoting dangerous products. Any person on Instagram who is given a product to promote has to put #AD or #Sponsored. Many celebrities don’t, or make it their “location” so it is small and overlooked. These products are promoted in such a way that send a clear message to young women: buy this, and you will look like me. Although “Influencers” are the main demographic who advertise, many celebrities (Khloe Kardashian, Cardi B) market these as well. Popular Makeup guru, Huda Kattan, posted a video recently showing her facetuning. The edited version shows her taking in her waist, slimming her arms, smoothing her jeans, expanding her thigh so she doesn’t have her “hip dips” anymore, adding more volume to her hair, as well as smoothing skin and removing blemishes. As of today, the post is coming up as removed.

The added layer of danger within celebrity promotion is that they not only have Facetune and Photoshop; they have surgeons, personal trainers, and private chefs. This only further pushes the lie. One may think that no matter the level of appearance-based anxiety a young teen has, they would have enough reasoning to see that these are false advertisements. However, due to the nature of Instagram, and how deeply engrossed these trends are, it becomes very easy to become unable to take a step back and evaluate. Even if a young woman, say 13, is skeptical about the skinny pills her favorite influencer is promoting, it will still be on her mind. Combined with a predisposed nature to being susceptible to body-targeted advertisements, she may even look into purchasing. And though a 13-year-old likely won’t be able to place an order online for these pills, should she live anywhere that has a GNC or Walmart, and her parents allow her out of the house with friends, it’s quite likely she’ll buy a variant of the pills at one of those stores. GNC, specifically, is promoted as a nutrition center, and so if masses of skinny pills and fit teas are sold there, it will likely sway the young girl into thinking that these are generally safe and healthy items. Should she begin taking them and lose weight, due to her body simply not retaining food, and people notice, it is likely she will keep using the pills to get more external validation. It is quickly that the cycle starts, and it only gets more vicious with time.

Jordan Younger, who boasts 212,000 followers, is a former Instagram Influencer who turned into an advocate after Instagram gave her an eating disorder. In an interview, Younger said that “ ‘pro-anorexia’ tags and pages have been known for years to outwardly promote eating-disordered lifestyles. But in my opinion, the more subtle and deceiving ‘fitness’ tags can be even more dangerous … Just one year ago, my average day consisted of scrolling, liking and not eating. I was in the deepest valley of my eating disorder. I was vegan, orthorexic, and anorexic. I was at the lowest weight of my life and well on my way to malnourishment. But that’s not what Instagram told me.”10 Another Influencer, Lucinda Evelyn, who has 15,400 followers, was asked to promote a skinny detox coffee. She had second thoughts about her promoting the coffee when her friends started asking her questions about it, and she realized that real people would buy into this. She noted that, “When I think of my followers I generally think of adults but a lot of them won’t be adults, a lot of them will be schoolchildren,” which shows the disconnect these Influencers have between their product promotion and the people who will be influenced by them. Evelyn said that the product was packed with the word skinny, presenting that if you aren’t skinny you aren’t worth it. Evelyn stands firm that the promotion of such things is selling anorexia and eating disorders and mental health problems.

More recently, Talbot, Gavin, Van Steen, and Morey coded a sample of 458 female images (269 #thinspiration, #189 fitspiration) posted on social media for body type. They found that thinspiration contained relatively more thin and objectified bodies than did fitspiration, which contained more muscular bodies (while still containing a proportion of extremely thin bodies). Their summation of their study is “Our results suggest that the healthy eating community on Instagram has a high prevalence of orthorexia symptoms, with higher Instagram use being linked to increased symptoms. These findings highlight the implications social media can have on psychological wellbeing, and the influence social media ‘celebrities’ may have over hundreds of thousands of individuals. These results may also have clinical implications for eating disorder development and recovery.”11

What does this all mean? It means that, yes, there is a correlation between Influencers’ promotion of these items, and the rise of eating disorders and disordered eating. It shows that many Influencers, such as Jordan and Lucinda, recognize, to an extent, what they are doing and what they are doing to others. It means that the upper celebrities, such as the Kardashians, undoubtedly understand that they are promoting their bodies, which have been essentially crafted by surgeons, as a result of whichever detox object they are promoting. Essentially, those who promote these pills and teas are profiting off of the eating disorders of young women.

I’ve spoken about her many times in this, but Khloe Kardashian epitomizes this. She has always been bullied for being the “ugly” and “fat” sister, with some people even questioning her father due to how “ugly” she was in comparison to her sisters. From all of this during her formative years, she got surgery and began promoting detox items as the source of her weight loss. In turn, this made other impressionable young women feel ugly and too big for not looking like her, so they began to purchase and use the detox items she promoted, and so forth.

It’s clear that using Instagram can have dangerous results. However, there are some positive outcomes from usage as well. For example, in an effort to counteract the harm done by the advertisement of such teas, Jameela Jamil, an actress and model, is openly fighting against these products, calling out celebrities and posting the truth about what the products do. She’s taken to making comedic videos showing the truth, and commenting on fellow celebrities promotion, as seen here. She tweets four images of Cardi B, Iggy Azalea, Khloe Kardashian, and Amber Rose promoting various fit teas. She writes: “Give us the discounts to your nutritionists, personal chefs, personal trainers, airbrushes, and plastic surgeons, you bloody liars.”12 She also astutely sums up the Khloe Kardashian cycle that was discussed earlier, on a comment on Khloe’s promotion: “If you’re too irresponsible to: a) own up to the fact that you have a personal trainer, nutritionist, probable chef, and a surgeon to achieve your aesthetic, rather than this laxative product … and b) tell them the side effects of this NON-FDA approved product, that most doctors are saying aren’t healthy. Side effects such as: possible Flat Tummy Tea Side Effects are cramping, stomach pains, diarrhea, and dehydration … then I guess I have to. It’s incredibly awful that this industry bullied you until you became this fixated on your appearance. That’s the media’s fault. But now please don’t put that back into the world, and hurt other girls, the way you would have been hurt. You’re a smart woman. Be smarter than this.”13

  1. “Glossary.” National Eating Disorders Association, March 22, 2017. (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders....↩︎

  2. “Glossary.” National Eating Disorders Association, March 22, 2017. (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders....↩︎

  3. “Glossary.” National Eating Disorders Association, March 22, 2017. (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders....↩︎

  4. “Glossary.” National Eating Disorders Association, March 22, 2017. (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders....↩︎

  5. Leah Boepple and J Kevin Thompson, “A Content Analytic Comparison of Fitspiration and Thinspiration Websites.” The International Journal of Eating Disorders, January 2016. (↩︎

  6. Jennifer Daw, “Eating Disorders on the Rise.” Monitor on Psychology. (↩︎

  7. Daw, “Eating Disorders on the Rise.” ↩︎

  8. Pixie G Turner and Carmen E Lefevre, “Instagram Use Is Linked to Increased Symptoms of Orthorexia Nervosa.” Eating and Weight Disorders : EWD, June 2017. (↩︎

  9. “Glossary.” National Eating Disorders Association, March 22, 2017. (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders....↩︎

  10. Brittany Ladin, “How Instagram Encouraged My Eating Disorder.” Huffington Post, November 1, 2016. (↩︎

  11. Catherine Victoria Talbot, Jeffrey Gavin, Tommy van Steen, and Yvette Morey, “A Content Analysis of Thinspiration, Fitspiration, and Bonespiration Imagery on Social Media.” Journal of Eating Disorders, September 26, 2017. (↩︎

  12. Jamil, Jameela. Social Media. 2018-2019. ↩︎

  13. Jamil, Jameela. Social Media. 2018-2019. ↩︎


Boepple, Leah, and J Kevin Thompson. “A Content Analytic Comparison of Fitspiration and Thinspiration Websites” The International Journal of Eating Disorders, January 2016. (

Daw, Jennifer. “Eating Disorders on the Rise.” Monitor on Psychology. Accessed March 31, 2022. (

“Glossary.” National Eating Disorders Association, March 22, 2017. (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders....)

Jamil, Jameela. Social Media. 2018-2019.

Ladin, Brittany. “How Instagram Encouraged My Eating Disorder.” Huffington Post, November 1, 2016. (

McCool, Lucy Whyte. “How Instagram Star Walked Away from ‘Selling Anorexia.’” BBC News, February 28, 2019. (

Tait, Amelia, “Flat Tummy Tea: Why the ASA Is Cracking down on Influencers Shilling Detox Drinks.” New Statesman, September 13, 2017. (

Talbot, Catherine Victoria, Jeffrey Gavin, Tommy van Steen, and Yvette Morey. “A Content Analysis of Thinspiration, Fitspiration, and Bonespiration Imagery on Social Media.” Journal of Eating Disorders, September 26, 2017. (

Tiggemann, Marika, Owen Churches, Lewis Mitchell, and Zoe Brown. “Tweeting Weight Loss: A Comparison of #Thinspiration and #Fitspiration Communities on Twitter.” Body Image, vol. 25, Mar. 2018, pp. 133–138., doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2018.03.002.

Turner, Pixie G, and Carmen E Lefevre. “Instagram Use Is Linked to Increased Symptoms of Orthorexia Nervosa.” Eating and Weight Disorders : EWD, June 2017. (

About the Author: 

Charlotte Kane is an emerging writer from upstate New York. In 2019, she was awarded the Walden Award for graduate and undergraduate research for her presentation, “Under the Influence: How Instagram Propagates Eating Disorders.” Her poem “Divine Retribution” has been published in Persephone’s Daughters, and she spends her free time baking and playing with her cat, Miss Lady.

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