viral weightloss challenges reveal a gaping hole in the body positivity movement

Hashtags collecting images of tiny waistlines and protruding bones are an unsettling reminder that social media can both hurt and help the effort to celebrate all bodies.

by Jane Helpern
Mar 22 2016, 1:35pm

The internet is not unlike a Las Vegas buffet spread. Whether your preference is for sushi, enchiladas, or fried chicken, there's plenty for everyone — you just can't vouch for the quality. And, like the fluorescent-lit depths of a Las Vegas hotel, the internet is not a flattering place, but somewhere prone to the funhouse-mirror-like distortion of an abandoned amusement park.

This is worth noting because it's easy to forget that not everyone lives inside a pastel pink bubble of female empowerment and body positivity. While body-shaming trolls are getting shut down left and right (fuck yeah, Sara Petty), and Hollywood celebs like Lena Dunham and Zendaya are slamming publishers for Photoshopping their bodies, much of the world is yet to join the body inclusivity movement. In fact, in some corners of the web there are populations of women devoted to the twisted trends that perpetuate impossible body standards. The most recent to spread like wildfire? The #A4Challenge, which prompts users of Weibo — the Chinese version of Twitter — to flaunt extreme thinness by photographing their waists behind an eight-inch-wide piece of paper in the hopes of disappearing behind it. They aspire to be literally paper thin.

This is far from the first terrifying viral phenomenon to propagate disturbing, and even dangerous, beauty standards. Last summer, China's #TheBellyButtonChallenge encouraged people (predominantly women) to try and reach their arm around behind their back and touch their belly button to demonstrate their nanoscale waist size. The hashtag racked up more than 130 million mentions on Weibo and sparked 104,000 discussion threads. One user even admitted to spending more than four hours attempting this feat, while another reportedly dislocated their shoulder after repeated failed undertakings. Despite scientific evidence linking this trick to flexibility and arm length, rather than thinness, millions still participated.

Last year, China also gave rise to the #TheCollarBoneChallenge, yet another horrifying and arbitrary contest measuring success in terms of how many coins a woman can store behind her clavicle bone. The warped idea being that the skinnier you are, the more bank you can balance. Like any viral sensation, the hashtag spawned hilarious spin-offs; one woman stashed a bright purple vibrator on her collarbone.

It's easy to cringe and dismiss these bizarre crazes as fleeting trends that exist in faraway places with their own unrealistic set of cultural norms and beauty standards. But despite the rise of (role) models like Ashley Graham and Barbie Ferreira, who celebrate a resplendent spectrum of bodies and rally to drop the term "plus-size," the pressure to be inordinately thin is alive and unwell at home. Lurking just beneath aerial latte pics and Kim K-inspired #liberated selfies is Instagram's underground pro-anorexia community, complete with disturbing hashtags and "thin-fluencers." In fact, if you click on the #anorexia, #ana, or #mia hashtags, an Instagram Content Advisory will appear warning of graphic content and providing a link to eating disorder recovery and support resources. Some of these images display protruding hip bones, others show limbs encircled in measuring tape, many share inspirational quotes advocating for purging, starvation, and self-harm, all covet skeletal figures. It's an alternate universe a galaxy away from the digital feminist revolution led by the Molly Sodas, Ashley Armitages, and Arvida Bystroms of the Internet that we've grown increasingly accustomed to seeing. And it's a reminder of why it's so important to represent diverse bodies in magazines and on screens.

In 2012, Instagram began censoring pro-eating disorder content and banning associated tags like #thighgap and #thinspiration. The company hoped the crackdown would deter posts from the pro-ED community, but a recent study at Georgia Tech reveals evidence to the contrary. "The 17 pro-ED terms which were initially moderated by Instagram were adapted into hundreds of new words. Each term had an average of 40 variables, and some had more — the researchers found 107 different spellings of 'thighgap' across the social network," reads a recent article in The Independent. In a detailed report chronicling the recent soar in eating disorders, the newspaper also blames social media as the leading cause for the 110% rise in teenagers seeking help for an eating disorder over the last three years.

But as many a think piece has already argued, social media is neither angel nor devil. Rather, it has everything to do with intention. If the platforms really does cause eating disorders, it also has the power to cure them. Many people have found constructive uses for social media, including helpful forums for healthy weight loss and support for emotional issues such as anxiety and depression.

So, are these China-based fads striving for near-invisibility really any different from the covert pro-ana communities quietly thriving behind the scenes in the US? Maybe only in the sense that they're out in the open, garnering millions of shares and reposts and evading Instagram's censorship policies. But more importantly, are these seemingly silly "challenges" just harmless social media crazes or do they have potentially dangerous implications?

In a recent piece for Refinery29, writer Venus Wong answers the question by revisiting China's history of oppressive thinness. The article explains that during the 5th century BC, many women in China engaged in "extreme waist cinching" and even "starved to death in an attempt appeal to the emperor" King Chu Ling, who notoriously fetishized severe thinness. "For many Chinese women, the motivation for weight loss does not stem from the need for a healthier lifestyle, but rather, the desire to become part of a covetable social group," explains Wong. Though King Chu's reign is ancient history, the pressure to live up to those expectations of thinness is still very present in the country's current weight-obsessed culture — one that mocks prominent figures who don't adhere to its impossible standards.

While the body positivity movement is undoubtedly gaining momentum, these disturbing weightloss challenges are a wakeup call, a reminder that the cause is more urgent than ever. We may not be able reverse centuries of body shaming over night, but the more we celebrate diversity and bodies of all shapes and sizes, the faster we'll become a truly #liberated society — one that teaches women it's okay to take up their rightful space in this world.


Text Jane Helpern

Social Media
Body Positivity
internet culture