Thinspiration: Exploring the Use of Photography on Pro-Anorexia Websites

By Dzana Tsomondo

© Laia Abril
"Real girl anorexic bones click to enlarge. Warning shocking image." The titles of Laia Abril's images are taken from pro-anorexia websites. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

Looking through Laia Abril’s self-published “fanzine,” Thinspiration, part of a long-term photography project on eating disorders, I am reminded of an essay that compared anorexia nervosa to extreme mountain climbing. Both push the limits of the human body and share the extremely high risk of death or permanent injury while testing the power of the mind to hold sway over the failings of the flesh. The bodies depicted in Thinspiration, a book of re-photographed images of anorexic women, resemble the forbidding terrain of the extreme climber—craggy peaks and desolate valleys stripped of all that makes life possible, the very thinness of the air.

In Thinspiration, Abril, a Barcelona-based photographer and associate picture editor at COLORS magazine, attempts to shed light on the insular world of the pro-ana (aka pro-anorexia or pro-eating disorder) community. Within supportive communities largely made possible by the Internet, the eating disordered can exchange personal stories, weight-loss tips and perhaps most importantly, find validation for a behavior that the outside world rejects.

The term “thinspiration,” or “thinspo,” refers to the exchange of images meant to inspire their viewers to continue losing weight, a common practice of pro-ana bloggers and forum participants. Initially, Abril intended to contact some of the girls to create portraits, but after investigating further she learned that thinspiration revolved around compulsive self-portraiture. “They were not only inspired by sharing their own photos. Self-photography had become part of the disease,” Abril says.

It was a crucial point in the project that broke Abril’s “naive [idea] of photography, which I had on a pedestal,” and helped her understand the role that photography played in both encouraging and tormenting these women and girls. That dichotomy was the crucible from which Thinspiration emerged. Instead of documenting the girls, Abril chose to portray “the use of photography” and the role photography plays in the pro-ana lifestyle. The ensuing journey proved both grueling and enlightening for Abril, as her own experience with an eating disorder meant that it took months for her to work up the courage to examine some of the “darker areas” of this online world.

Initially Abril photographed the images as they appeared on her computer screen. Little by little, she learned how to “think like a pro-ana” and used that newfound perspective to re-imagine the work. “I started to see different patterns of composition and focus in their images, so at first I only ‘improved’ their shots with various crops. Later I began to introduce elements like flash bounced off the screen, creating a discourse between their camera and mine.”

The finished publication mirrors the photographer’s own immersion, deeper and deeper into the dark recesses of pro-ana thought. The early pages are dotted with self-portraits highlighting protruding spines, jutting clavicles and ephemeral waists, their unsettling nature undercut by the girls’ buoyant poses and flashing cameras. But as you move through the work, the palette washes out and the images grow decidedly more macabre. Bits of text appear, seemingly cribbed from the “ana” hive-mind and infused with cult thinking: the exaltation of control and discipline, the aspiration to nothingness, even their own Ten Commandments.

A project like Thinspiration is destined to evoke debate, but Abril is not cowed by the controversy. When asked how she responds to critics who say she is merely propagating pro-ana ideas and images, Abril says she sees a double standard in how we confront the “dirty secrets” of Western society. “I do not remember that anyone accused [photographers who documented the Taliban] of being pro-terrorist.”

Thinspiration, she says, is “just a humble attempt to expose a massive problem in [the] form of an introspective journey through the nature of obsessive desire.”

Abril hopes to call attention to what she considers “new risk factors” for sufferers of this disease: “the social networks and photography.”

Related Articles from the PDN Archive:

Laia Abril Photo Gallery

Laia Abril on the Fabrica Artist Residency

Thinking Globally: COLORS Magazine


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