The female body has become a subject of broad discussion where different 'stakeholders' each impose their own requirements. The state expects women to be healthy and fertile in order to perform their childbearing 'duty' as citizens; popular culture, the entertainment industry and lifestyle magazines emphasise beauty and sexuality; youth wins in the marital market, but all parties tend to agree that the 'ideal' body must be slim.
Young people tend to go overboard in trying to stand out from their peers and thus often over-emphasise thinness. Some private social networks promote eating disorders such as anorexia as signs of exclusivity. Members of such communities have constructed their own mythology, personifying anorexia and bulimia as Ana and Mia and poetically describing themselves as butterflies, dragonflies, fairies and other ethereal creatures – not just thin, but weightless.
Paradoxically, they glamorise their unhealthy physical condition, such as emaciation, dizziness and pallor, taking pride in their self-discipline and in being exceptional, found Litvina, researcher at the HSE Centre for Youth Studies in St. Petersburg, and Ostroukhova, student at the HSE in St. Petersburg.
They studied the content of Russia's largest social network Vkontakte, in particular online communities focusing on health, fitness and a (reasonably) slim body and those promoting androgynous or asexual anorexic body. The researchers monitored these two types of online communities – populated mainly by young women under thirty – in May 2013 and summarised their findings in the paper 'Social Media Discourse Regulating Female Body Image: Between Slimness and Anorexia', published in the HSE's Journal of Social Policy Studies, Volume 13, No, 1, 2015.
According to the authors, today's world is characterised by "a passion for visual display as a type of commodity." Young people in particular obsess with visual self-presentation, such as posting their photos, food diaries and exercise routines on various social media. It comes as no surprise, since a consumerist society perceives a slim and beautiful body as the key to success, and youth subcultures share this ideal.
As a result, many young women weigh-in regularly trying to fit the 36-24-36 (90-60-90) standard promoted widely through mass media (see Young People are Obsessed with Slim Body), where the extremely thin bodies of models and actresses are associated with desired social and psychological characteristics and regarded as a guarantee of a great future, including a comfortable marriage. Conversely, young people who do not match the ideal get marginalised in this discourse, and peers see them as lacking the 'entry ticket' to future success.
Thus, according to the authors, young people seek to prove their commitment to the 'perfect body' and to have their peers confirm that they meet the standard.
The desire to show off their bodily assets prompts high school and college students and young workers to post their 'before and after' weight loss pictures, talk about healthy eating and exercise, share tips on how to avoid overeating and discuss BMI. Thus, being unhappy about one's own body serves as the starting point for self-improvement.
Such groups promoting healthy weight loss are usually public and are the most numerous ones (with more than 3 million members). They propagate the conventional ideal of a fit, young and sexy body. Groups such as ‘Healthy Body’, ‘90-60-90’ and ‘Dear Diary, I Want to Be Skinny’ keep a sense of perspective in their weight loss messages – at least, their members distance themselves from proponents of eating disorders, express negative views on anorexia as 'a terrible disease' and describe women with anorexic bodies as 'depressed' and 'nuts'.
To illustrate, almost half (49.8%) of all public posts in the ‘Dear Diary’ community are pictures of 'ideal bodies' in sexy poses, surrounded by attributes of luxury, to serve as motivation for dieting and exercise. These are followed by advice on fitness (25.6%), healthy eating (17.4%) and personal care (7.2%). The main focus is on a reasonably restricted diet and exercise as the healthiest weight loss strategy.
Eating binges, usually followed by a 'penalty' of fasting days, are also a frequent topic in such online communities. Members comment on one another's success, build a rating of 'best bodies', set beauty standards and offer recipes for success, found Litvina and Ostroukhova.
Online communities focused on other body types – big or, conversely, anorexic – are far less numerous and often private. The authors studied pro-anorexic communities fixated on extreme thinness and appetite suppression, similar to wannarexics, pro-Ana and other communities which support eating disorders.
Anorexia is often a consequence of women having more trust in media images than their own feelings. Vkontakte includes a substantial number of public pages and online communities which position themselves as pro-anorexic, some of them quite big, with around 65000 members. Their audience is quite young – most starvation diet followers are school students and college freshmen.
In contract to online communities such as ‘Healthy Body’ and ‘Dear Diary’, which cultivate reasonable body ideals, pro-anorexic groups aim for a dangerously low weight. Their slogans often are 'My Ultimate Goal is Zero Kilos' and 'Be Thin or Die Trying’. They poeticise unsightly scrawny bodies, pale and dizzy, prone to fainting from hunger. Pro-anorexic communities virtually ignore the ideals of sexuality and health, affirming instead the 'otherness' of their bodies.
Hunger and often extreme starvation are considered the main weight loss strategy, and self-starvation is glorified and associated with strong will and with being 'exceptional'. Self-starvation is accompanied by other dangerous behaviours, such as purging and heavy smoking.
Pro-anorexic communities use symbolism and imagery: girls present themselves as weightless, magical creatures – fairies, butterflies and nymphs. Anorexia and bulimia are described using metaphors and personified as Ana and Mia – community members talk and devote their writings to them. According to Litvina and Ostroukhova, such writings often emphasize loneliness and describe body images which are asexual and androgynous.
"Such online communities redefine anorexia as an elite, desirable and special condition," conclude Ostroukhova and Litvina. Members of such communities expect and receive support and solidarity from one another.
Thus, the new social media is breeding new body ideals, unconventional (anorexic and androgynous) as well as conventional (young, athletic and sexual), thereby fueling young people's endless obsession about their physical appearance, since they believe it to play an almost determining role in their life success.