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How 'Thinspiration' Became a Dirty Word

Here's something I never thought I'd admit in public: I am a longtime follower of Adam Richman. Those of you who actively avoid the television channel Dave may not have heard of Richman—a white, physically unfit guy who is known somewhat incongruously as "the Muhammad Ali of the culinary world" – but I used to watch him stuff his chops with leaning towers of pizza at least three times a week.

Richman's main claim to fame is his participation in a TV show called Man v Food. Mostly, it involved him ingesting various oversized fatty food combos as part of an "eating challenge" that eventually saw him reach dangerous levels of obesity. At one point, he told the Daily Mail that he was "the size of a Smart car".

Happily, Richman has lost 60lb, but unhappily, he's also lost his new TV show after attacking several critical internet commenters in a foul-mouthed rant that, hypocritically, involved telling one woman to "eat a bag of shit."

The row began when Richman posted a selfie on Instagram in which he was wearing some too-big trousers that look like those photos you see in the local paper next to adverts for used car dealerships. It bore the legend: "Had ordered this suit from a Savile Row tailor over a year ago. Think I'm gonna need to take it in a little … #Victory #EyesOnThePrize #AnythingIsPossible #fitness #transformation #thinspiration."

Now, you may question why an Instagram brouhaha is worthy of coverage on a global news site, and you may be right. But notwithstanding the law that anyone who uses more than three hashtags in a sentence should be confined to a small, internetless box for eternity, there is an interesting phenomenon at play here. The aspect of the post that commenters found most objectionable was Richman's use of the word "thinspiration"—a word that is often used to tag so-called "motivational" photographs prevalent in pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia circles. The photos are often emblazoned with slogans such as Kate Moss's "nothing tastes as good as skinny feels" and fetishises certain aspects of skinniness, such as jutting hip bones, visible ribs, thigh gaps or indeed the "transformation" itself. Such posts have been doing the rounds online for years but, as was recently examined in a book I co-wrote about women's magazines, similar content is now making its way into the mainstream media.

There's no doubt that as a cultural phenomenon, "thinspiration" is dangerous. Academics and those recovering from eating disorders have emphasised that eating disorders can have a kind of contagious effect: sufferers can relapse after exposure to certain content or by contact with other eating disorder sufferers. In her excellent book How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, Kelsey Osgood details how she would obsessively seek out anorexia memoirs written by other women, not only as a way of gaining insight into the condition but also as a way of picking up starvation tips.

Similarly, the listing of weights, measurements and calorie intake can have a dangerous impact, and those in recovery are quick to censure those who invoke them. In recent years the "thinspiration" trend has come under increasingly vocal criticism from some groups of internet users, to the point where the word itself has taken on an unspeakable quality. It has been dubbed offensive, problematic and triggering, and so anyone who employs it needs to be "called out".

Richman has certainly been called out, most notably by the "fat activist" Amber Sarah, and his professional life has seen the consequences. But this reclassifying of "thinspiration" as a slur is curious, especially when it has been used, as in this case, somewhat out of context (first, by a man and second, by someone who was probably unaware of its connotations to people with eating disorders). On the one hand, I wouldn't be surprised if his boastful statements irritated those who are struggling with their own issues, but I also think it's more than that.

Could there be an element of jealousy towards this man, who has spent years gorging himself on the most unhealthy of foods and getting paid for it? Spend enough time on pro-anorexia websites and you'll read posts from sufferers detailing their obsession with food (thinking about it, reading about it, preparing it and not eating it) and food programmes on TV. Indeed, I was introduced to Man v Food by a friend with an eating disorder who watched it religiously, along with Supersize vs Superskinny and Come Dine With Me. I myself watched it most during periods of extreme calorie-cutting. It acted as a kind of comfort blanket: a man who could eat as much as he wanted and, instead of being derided and mocked, was cheered on and slapped on the back. In a way he acted as a burger-scoffing vortex for my own forbidden desires.

I wonder how many saw him in the same way and then felt disappointed when he revealed that, like many thousands of women and increasing numbers of men in the developed world, in actual fact he cares a lot, perhaps desperately so, about being thin. He may have hurled unpleasant abuse at strangers on the internet, but on that point he has my sympathy.

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