In a three-part series on “Seeking Thinspiration”, we turn the spotlight on the issue of eating disorders plaguing Singapore teens. Although eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating are not new, the importance of looking good – offline AND now online -- among the young has never been greater. Now more than ever, “Thinspiration” models such as Kate Olsen, Kate Moss and picture-perfect K-wave stars from Girls’ Generation and Wonder Girls serve as role models for their army of teen fans. Yahoo! reporter ELIZABETH SOH delves into their world and uncovers a worrying trend of forced starvation, weight-loss pills and three-apple-a-day diets.
“When I started this journey, I knew it would be difficult, but once I am skinny, it will all be worth it. Skinny people are beautiful and happy people,” is the opening line to 16-year-old Stephanie's (not her real name) "Thinspiration" blog.
It also marked the start of her two years as a Thinspo girl, during which the 160cm tall Secondary Four student dropped from a healthy 53 kg to an emaciated 42 kg by self starvation and in the process developed depression before finally being diagnosed as bulimic.
Stephanie is one of a growing number of young Singaporean girls who are turning to self starvation or purging to lose weight after jumping onto the so-hip-it-hurts "Thinspiration" bandwagon that has swept America and reached our shores through the Internet.
Thinspiration, or Thinspo as its commonly referred to amongst its devotees, represents a community of young women who are anorexic or bulimic “by choice” and band together on the Internet to share tips and support each other in their misguided quests to attain perfect stick thin figures.
They advocate the “freedom” to be anorexic and bulimic and regularly write in their Thinspo blogs, posting “inspirational” and "artistic" pictures of 23-inch waists, bony wrists, and protruding bones on microblogging sites Tumblr and Pinterest.
Conversely, they also post photos of fat people as warnings to themselves not to succumb to the temptation of food, writing about their descent into depression and guilt when they do give in.
In the past two years, the number of Thinspo devotees have increased steadily, drawing impressionable girls attracted by the idea of being part of a bigger identity and the bohemian, free spirited spin Thinspo blogs put on eating disorders that are traditionally considered taboo.
Stephanie, who is on the road to recovery today, told Yahoo! Singapore the shocking story of her years as a thinspo girl, starting in early 2009 when she and her classmates started getting interested in American fashion bloggers and Vogue models.
"We would Google for models like Alexa Chung, Karlie Kloss - they were all so skinny and glamorous. And their photos were always posted on Thinspo sites in America. We started reading up and found out about this whole huge community of girls who wanted to be like them and their success stories. It sounded so exciting to be part of it, even if I was a bit scared at first," she said.
Soon, they had started their own Thinspo clique of about six girls.
“It was like a secret society. We all had Thinspo Tumblr blogs and motivated each other to lose more weight, and when I was forcing myself to throw up in the toilet, I could hear them next door doing the same thing. I told myself it couldn’t be so wrong if everyone was like that too,” said Stephanie, who was then attending an all-girls’ school in the Eastern part of Singapore.
They would text and chat in their own secret language of sorts, reading up on other Thinspo blogs and sharing tips on abusing laxatives and how to induce vomiting for those “Pro-mia” (pro Bumilia) members, and crash dieting techniques for those who were “Pro-ana” (pro Anorexia).
A typical Thinspo blog features a column where the girls post their “SW (Starting Weight)”, “CW (Current Weight)”, and “UGW (Ultimate Goal Weight)” along with their height and a line about who their Thinspo idols are.
The girls use usernames like starvingforperfect, stick-figure-ballerina, and thinisbeautyispain and ask for “accountability buddies” to help keep them from binging, painstakingly chronicling everysingle calorie they consume on a daily basis.
For two years, Stephanie, 16, ate just one apple and two slices of bread a day. She would blog everyday about how she hid her drastic weight loss from her parents by wearing layers under her clothes to pad her frame and thick hair bands to cover her hair loss.
Her entire weekly allowance of $50 was spent on cigarettes, which she believed would help her lose weight.
"Today I ate my apple naked in front of the mirror so that I could see for myself how every calorie would make me fatter. In the end, I lost my appetite and ate only half. I’m so proud of myself," reads one entry that Stephanie says she cannot look at today without breaking down.
Stephanie's Thinspo inspiration was Karlie Kloss, a size four, 19-year-old American model and ballet dancer who has modeled for fashion royalty - the likes of Christian Dior, Marc Jacobs, and Alexander McQueen.
Other popular Thinspo poster girls are the waif-like Alexa Chung and the tiny Kate Moss, whose quote “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” has become the most quoted Thinspo slogan around.
Both have been accused of promoting pro-anorexic stances, prompting Chung to shut down her Twitter in April this year after receiving hate mail from people blaming her for fuelling Thinspo devotees.
In Asia, pin-up Thinspiration girls are Korean stars, namely Korean girl band Girl’s Generation, known for their uniformly slim physiques and slender, long legs. The term “S-line”, popularized in Korea to describe a woman who has unrealistically "perfect" proportions - large breasts, a perky bottom and a tiny waist, has also caught on here in Singapore together with K-pop fever.
For Stephanie, her thinspo aspirations came to a grinding halt when her mother discovered her blog and cut off her Internet access completely before sending her for treatment. She was diagnosed with bulimia in 2011 and continues to receive counseling for her condition, which she has grown to accept and wants to put behind her.
“We would have screaming fights over a bowl of chicken soup for three hours until I finished it. I remember thinking, I hate my mother, I want to run away,” said Stephanie, who has put five kilogrammes back on. “Sometimes I still feel the urge to rush to the toilet and throw up or skip my meals, but I think of how awful I used to look and feel about myself, and I don’t want to go back there.”
When asked why she decided to share her story despite barely being able to face her own reflection, she said she didn't want other girls to make the same mistake she did.
"I want to tell them, don't even go to the Thinspo websites - its so easy to fall in love with the idea of being a thinspo girl, people commenting on your blog posts and admiring your weight loss, making you feel good - but you will never be content with the way you look if you need other people to tell you so," she said.
"Most of all, I have a younger sister and I don't want her to ever go through the same self-hate and low self esteem."
Stephanie’s best friend, Alice (not her real name), is also on the road to recovery after Stephanie's mother contacted her parents. For Alice, who suffers from blurred vision, weak, porous teeth, and fainting spells after four years of abuse, the journey will be longer and harder.
At one point in time, she was so skinny and ill that she started missing her periods and was told by doctors that she may not be able to have children in the future.
“I can’t even describe how it feels to find out that I have destroyed my health at 16,” said Alice, 17, who cried several times during the interview. “I feel so stupid, but I was young and I just wanted to fit in.”
Stephanie and Alice told Yahoo! that they have come across at least a hundred other Thinspo blogs belonging to young Singaporean girls, with many other private Thinspo groups operating on Pinterest and Twitter.
They worry about other girls who have not received help.
“My mum noticed because she’s a housewife and she saw that I wasn’t eating and chanced on my blog. But many of my friends only see their parents late at night when they are back from work or on weekends, and they have no idea what’s going on,” said Stephanie.
Thinspo and Pro-Ana online groups have been around as early as 2001, and pressure from the public and women's groups resulted in Internet site Yahoo! announcing that it would remove Pro-ana sites from its Yahoo! Groups service.
Facebook staff also regularly look out for and delete Pro-ana and Pro-mia interest groups. Both have taken public stances against Thinspiration and Pro-ana, stating that it promoted self harm and was in violation of their terms of service agreements.
Most recently, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instgram, by far the largest hubs for Thinspo teens, announced this year that they would shut down blogs or delete photos which “actively promote or glorify self harm.”
However, success has been limited on both fronts and Thinspo blogs continue to thrive online, with more appearing every day. A simple search on Tumblr using the keywords "Skinny" and "Thinspo" turns up thousands of hits.
According to Optenet’s Internet Trends Study, pro-anorexia and bulimia websites have increased by 470 per cent from 2006 to 2008,
Thinspo bloggers like the hugely popular Skinny Gossip which routinely slam celebrities who put on weight and call them “cows” still attract Internet traffic and impressionable girls, while openly thinspo site Prettythin.com, touts itself as “The World’s Largest Eating Disorder Community and Forum” and is still going strong.
Stephanie and Alice's stories raise questions: How many troubled young Singaporean teenagers are leading double lives as Thinspo girls? What are the signs, and how do we help them? In the third and final part of the Seeking "Thinspiration" series, we speak to doctors and medical experts to find.
Read the first part of Seeking "Thinspiration" series here.