Recently, Tumblr decided to crack down on pro-anorexia (“pro-ana”) and other self-harm users and an upcoming change to their policies will reflect that users are no longer allowed to post content that “actively promotes or glorifies self-harm.” But to many users, this doesn’t matter – they’ll just head to Pinterest, which has yet to respond to crack down calls for users pinning pro-ana and other self-harm imagines.
Pinterest is coming under fire for their lax policies on this issue, but some people are also saying that Tumblr is limiting expression with their new policies. It’s a tricky situation to say the least.
Freedom of Speech/Expression
First of all, as is often the case when websites or companies decide to censor users in any way, I’ve seen several comments complain that this is violating freedom of speech rights. Whether you like it or not, Tumblr is legally allowed to make rules about the content they want to post. “Freedom of speech” doesn’t mean that companies like Tumblr aren’t allowed to create content rules for their users.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t censorship. It is. When a company limits what you can say, even though what you’re saying isn’t illegal, they are censoring you. So yes, Tumblr is censoring its users. Is that necessarily a bad thing, though?
Jason Falls is someone who’s not afraid to speak his mind, so I asked him how he felt about a company like Tumblr or Pinterest censoring people. Says Jason,
It’s a sticky issue. Once you start censoring content, you’re legislating the users with your worldview. Some will stay, some will go and you will forever be seen as potentially big brother-ish. On the flip side, you become Topix.com which is quickly becoming the worst excuse for a website on the planet all because of user comments, not its content. What these companies need to do is take a stand, define their worldview and worry about users that are comfortable with it. Catering to everyone never works anyway.
Tumblr is clearly defining their worldview with this move to ban pro-ana content, and perhaps that is a good thing.
The problem with censorship of bad things is that sometimes bad and good blend into this funky little spot we all know and love called the gray area. One thing prominent in the pro-ana community is the concept of “thinspiration” or “thinspo” for short – pictures and mantras that encourage you to be thinner.
The problem is, some people who are using thinspo tags or have thinspo boards on Pinterest aren’t necessarily promoting anything other than health. If you do a quick Pinterest search for thinspo, you’ll likely see what I see – some really messed up images of girls with their bones stinking out held up as inspiration…and some perfectly healthy girls held up as inspiration. “Thin” isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. It’s when you encourage unhealthy behaviors, like binging and purging, that it becomes negative.
So with all of this gray area it can be difficult to find the line and only ban users who have crossed it. Tumblr has committed to manually reviewing content that is reported as self-harm, but I have to wonder if this is feasible for the company or for a growing company like Pinterest.
And allow me to play devil’s advocate for a minute. What about other unhealthy diet behaviors? If thinpo stuff is banned because it encourages unhealthy eating, what about the exact opposite – pins/posts that encourage eating fattening foods? Just the other week, I saw a pin for a layered dessert recipe comprised of a pretzel crust and layers of cookie cough and peanut butter cups, all covered with brownie batter. I think looking at the picture gave me diabetes. Isn’t that just as unhealthy of body choice as a picture of a thing girl that reads, “I want to turn heads”?
The gray area is tricky.
Anne-Sophie Reinhardt, recovering anorexic and blogger at Fighting Anorexia, even notes that banning users is the wrong way to go in fighting self-harm. Says Anne-Sophie,
Having never participated in any of the Pro Ana movements, I can still understand the reasons behind wanting to be part of a community of like-minded people. Having an eating disorder means you’re living in an isolated and lonely world that nobody really understands but those who are going through the same. Banning sites like these is thereof counterproductive and only helps to increase the level of disconnectedness that those boys and girls already feel. Instead of banning the posts, we should start a conversation with them and redirect them to healthy and safe pro recovery sites. I am therefor not for banning those sites, as harmful as they are and I would appreciate other, more creative ways of making those who are part of it feel seen, heard and cared for.
Others have suggested similar measures, noting that sites like Pinterest could plan skins or ads next to pro-ana content, directing people to organizations that can help.
Self-Harm is a Misnomer
What I personally believe, and why I support Tumblr’s censorship decision, is that the concept of “self-harm” is a misnomer when you put it online. I could debate all day about whether or not someone should be allowed to control their own body (including committing suicide), but that’s not the argument here. The argument is whether or not platforms should allow you to share this information.
When you’re sharing self-harm information, you’re hurting more people than just yourself. Younger users viewing Pinterest or Tumblr posts might feel like self-harm is the right course when they otherwise would have never considered that option. Community is a powerful thing. Even in doing research for this post, I found myself feeling motivated to work out and go on a stricter diet simply because of all the thinso pictures I was seeing. For me, that could be a healthy thing. But for someone already battling poor body image and other self-esteem problems, it can be dangerous.
New content guidelines also give users a reason to report users – and the ability for a company like Tumblr to partner with an organization that can help. Sometimes, all someone needs is another person to reach out and say, “I care and I want to help you.” Social sharing sites give us the ability to identify these users. Perhaps outright-banning is too harsh of a choice, but as Anne-Sophie notes, the opportunity to reach out to these boys and girls is available on a mass level for the first time.
So should Pinterest ban pro-ana content and other self-harm pins? Maybe. With caution. Censorship can be a slippery slope, and not everyone using the thinspo tag is using it to promote unhealthy behavior. If they follow Tumblr’s example, though, I think banning self-harm pins could be a good thing for everyone involved.