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YouTube’s Failure to Address ‘Restricted Eating’ Videos Is Perpetuating Eating Disorder Subculture

Unlike Instagram or Tumblr, anorexia content on the platform goes mostly unchecked

An iced coffee, cabbage soup, a handful of pumpkin seeds and a Diet Coke barely sounds like it would qualify as a meal. At only 100 calories total, it actually barely even qualifies as a snack. But on February 4, 2019, this is all that 14-year-old YouTuber Ari Shrinks ate.

On other “restricted eating” days, she might reach around 400 calories, with a purge and some exercise thrown in to bring the number down further. Ari regularly documents her restricted-eating habits, interspersing footage of her boiling water with K-pop clips and faceless images of her in an oversized hoodie. Her commenters tell her to “stay safe” while lamenting their own inability to eat so little. 

She’s far from alone: Across YouTube, teenagers are continuously self-documenting their eating disorders. Their videos are reminiscent of the “pro-ana” (short for pro-anorexia) content that both Tumblr and Instagram have attempted to place restrictions on — previously, young women, in particular, could easily find a subculture of likeminded people sharing dieting tips, advice for keeping one’s eating habits secret from their parents and, most insidiously, photos of skin clinging to ribcages overlayed with quotes like “Nothing Tastes As Good As Skinny Feels” to serve as inspiration for ignoring their hunger. And while Tumblr and Instagram have managed to block some of this pro-ana content — as evidenced by empty hashtag searches and posts that now state they were removed for violating community guidelines (and offer content advisories and links to recovery resources instead) — it’s still not difficult to find other forms of pro-ana there.

Meanwhile, over on YouTube, the content is accessible without disclaimers or workarounds and found easily using the search function. In fact, videos with tens of thousands of views documenting restricted eating show up unsolicited in users’ “Recommended Video” sections (as I encountered personally). These videos may not always show “thinspiration” photos of skeletal women, but they can still have a detrimental effect on the girls who watch them by glorifying the act of eating too little.

“Eating disorders tend to be competitive illnesses, driven by perfectionism,” says Lauren Muhlheim of Eating Disorder Therapy LA. “When people see these low-calorie targets, it gives them something to strive for, unfortunately. To see people eating that restrictively sets a really low bar in terms of caloric intake. I think this would be very disturbing for susceptible people to watch and have access to.”

In addition to restricted-eating videos, many accounts share binge-eating videos, as well — in some cases, they discuss purging their food afterward, too. The people making these videos seem to have no confusion about the fact that they do, indeed, have a problem, and yet, there’s a certain soft, hip and feminine aesthetic to them. Most of the videos are wordless and set to chill beats or iMovie stock music. None show the entirety of the creator’s face. Instead, most of the girls who make these videos are completely anonymous, but use the platform as an allegedly neutral outlet to discuss their eating disorder. “I’m not trying to promote, endorse or glamorise [sic] any sort of disordered eating, I’m simply documenting my own eating disorder,” writes user Peachby in the description of her video.

But for what purpose? 

“It could be either to normalize how they’re struggling or try to get some support, or it could be to try to keep themselves accountable by shaming themselves [for binging],” says Muhlheim. “They’re feeling like they need to do this for a reason, whether to get attention or praise from other people who are going to admire them for their restriction. We’re in a warped society where there’s an over-value on thinness, and people who eat less are considered more virtuous. But nobody should have a higher value than any other. People need food. Trying to restrict food and promoting that is making it hard for everybody who has to live up to this ideal, and certainly makes it harder for people with eating disorders to recover. It promotes diet culture, which is so toxic and dangerous for everybody — people brag about diet and restriction all the time, saying that they haven’t eaten all day. Or, they make comments about how much they ate yesterday and how they’re not going to eat today.”

Though Shrinks seems aware that what she’s doing is dangerous, it’s unclear whether she or others in the YouTube subculture are making any real strides toward change. In May, Shrinks posted a confessional video with a written account of her eating-disorder history and her family’s attempts to get her help. In tears, she says, “Now here I am, trapped in a terrible cycle of bulimia. I’ve convinced everyone that I’m much better. My rules are still enforced at home, but I’ve gained everyone’s trust. As a result, I’m not monitored. This morning, I weighed myself for the first time in weeks, and the results broke my heart. I’m 127 pounds. I’m a failure.”

Since then, Shrinks has posted multiple restricted-eating videos. On her Instagram, the content of which she keeps private, she has a public bio: “TRIGGER WARNING,” it states, with big red exclamation points. Below, she lists her current height and weight: 5-foot-8 and 117 pounds. (For the record, at her height, 127 pounds is just five pounds over the absolute lowest possible threshold for “normal” BMI — 117 is alarmingly underweight).

YouTube didn’t respond to my request for comment on these videos, even though they may violate their guidelines regarding harmful or dangerous content, which includes a subcategory on eating disorders, defined as “content in which people suffering from anorexia or other eating disorders are praised for weight loss, are bragging about it or are encouraging others to imitate the behavior.” 

Muhlheim suggests that anyone feeling influenced by these videos “should talk to someone — either a professional or a supportive person in their lives or reach out to the National Eating Disorders Association.” One also hopes that the people struggling with anorexia or bulimia watching these videos will instead turn to the recovery-based content also available on YouTube. Better still, ideally YouTube will tweak the algorithm so it’s impossible not to go down that path.