Sexualizing your eating disorder.

Eye-catching headline, huh? Increasingly, this seems to be a blog about the intersection of eating disorders and the internet. Whatever—I’ll lean in. Eating disorders are, unfortunately, a cornerstone of Internet culture.

  • When women speak to me about Tumblr, they first thing they usually share is how bad the platform was for their eating disorder. A disordered relationship with food and thinness is a trait that I’ve observed almost all Very Online women share. I’m a broken record at this point, but I feel like there remain unanswered questions to the impact that being online so often has on our perception of our physical bodies. I suspect that these questions are not only difficult to articulate, but impossible-seeming to answer because we haven’t figured out how to conceptualize the Internet quite yet.

  • Tumblr and the sexualization of eating disorders. I’ve been floating around pro-anorexia communities since at least the early 2000s.

    When Tumblr was in its heyday, I was struck by the accusation that it uniquely encouraged EDs, that their pro-ana communities were somehow singularly terrible. From my perspective, these were some of the oldest digital communities there were, and Tumblr was just a new platform for them. Why was it worse on Tumblr than on LiveJournal or Xanga or invite-only forums? I’m still not sure it was.

    I will say this though: Tumblr was the first place I remember where eating disorders were explicitly sexualized.

    That’s not to say that it was a totally asexual project in other places online. There were always ‘chasers,’ predatory men who have fetishes for very thin women. I recall one user, flatchested-something-something-something, who followed me around LiveJournal when I was just a kid. On Youtube, OfHerbsandAltars details her experiences with “anorexia chasers.” There’s the famous story of BonyPink. It’s horrifying stuff.

    But paraphilias and communities around them have always existed online. Thinspiration would often be of sickly-thin models and female celebrities; photoshopped images of Kate Moss were a staple, but they were ethereal, otherworldly. They weren’t sexual. These women were paragons of discipline. They had transcended the physical body. It was very much women speaking to other women about their own desire for… control? For the ‘perfect’ body? More than perfect, pure. I would characterize it, at least in my own experience, as quasi-religious.

    There was also the occasional impulse to infantilize yourself. But again, it was distinctly non-sexual. In fact, I would go as far to say as the infantilization that took place on these boards were counter-signaling sexuality. The affinity for anime, for particular childish, girly video games, for dolls, for cutesy stationery, all of these things were supposed to say: I am virginal. I am pure. I am a little girl and sex is not on my radar.

    And then Tumblr came along.

    Now, if you spent any time in Tumblr-related eating disorder communities, then you know it also dovetailed with the ‘living dolls’ trend, pastel goth mood boards, trans-masculine identity (more on that in a later post, with some Subject Matter Experts), and, most saliently of all, the nymphet subculture.

    The whole Tumblr nymphet thing isn’t just worthy of its own post, but possibly an entire book. It’s the one area that I receive the most requests to write on. And that’s because it was just so weird.

    How do I describe it in a nutshell? If you’re familiar at all with podcaster Dasha Nekrasova, she seems to be someone who’s still in her “Tumblr nymphet” phase. It was an aesthetic movement that revolved around ethereality, thinness, pastels, Lana Del Rey. But as the name suggests, it was also undeniably sexual.

    It was a sexualization of a certain feminine ideal: a young, angelic, sickly-thin, barely pubescent girl. Free of acne and breasts with a perfect thigh gap. I don’t think it’s alarmist to say it had a strong pedophilic undertone—I mean, it’s in the name, which is cribbed from Nabokov’s Lolita.

    This is, of course, an attitude that’s persistent online, and I think even more harmful than the straightforwardly pornographic. It reinforces the idea that men are only interested in girls. Not just girls, but thigh-gap-ribcage-showing girls. That, as the TikTok meme and Ladytron song goes, they only want you when you’re 17, when you’re 21, you’re no fun. The terrifying thing is that there’s a kernel of truth in this.

    A well-adjusted man might bristle at the idea of dating a teenager or a woman who’s play-acting as one. But that’s a well-adjusted man.

    As a woman, you’re woefully aware of the premium placed on youth. Real youth. Like, ages 15-21 youth.

    You notice when male friends or even just male strangers online talk about how such and such an e-girl cosplayer gained weight—only for you to realize the “weight gain” they’re referring to is actually her moving out of puberty into young adulthood. That the “weight gain” they think is so sad is the way her body changed between ages 15 and 19. You notice when the man you’re dating ‘likes’ photos of women dressed in the style of Belle Delphine.

    When he sighs at the realization that his favorite streamer is now 30—not at the passage of time, but that she has neared an expiration date.

    …Expiration for what?

    My sister, wiser than me, once said that she thinks the Kardashians have been good if only because they stand in stark contrast to the Belle Delphines of the world. (Well, at the time, I think she may have referenced Venus Angelic, but same song, second verse.)

    And certainly better Kim K than Kate Moss.

    You know, say what you will about them, but they’re unquestionably adult women.

    When I was 17 and dressing myself up in Japanese-inspired make-up, trying to do the dollish thing, she’d say to me: Kat, the minute you start aspiring to look more like a Kardashian and less like a 14 year old Japanese girl, you’ll be a lot happier. Harsh words. Weird words to read, particularly if you’re not a woman. But she was right. There’s something crisis-inducing about a big nose and big hips and a fat ass when you’re doing make-up tutorials by Venus Angelic and mood-boarding J-fashion and thigh gaps.

    Obviously we all age, though, so these lines of thought are doomed to depress us.

    Peter Thiel once said with respect to death, “You can deny it, you can accept it, or you can try to change it.”

    I think that the nymphet trend is an attempt to accept aging, as counterintuitive as that sounds.

    The only ‘solution’ to a society that values age in this way is for women to seek older and older men. The man who’s 60 when you’re 30. The man who’s so old, you’ll always be youthful by comparison.

  • The Wonderland System. I wrote in UnHerd recently about how I’m a TikTok power user. It’s bad, but what can I say. At least it’s early in the morning and late at night. Spending so much time on TikTok, however, has granted me the privilege of watching TikTok history unfold in real time. The Wonderland System is one of these things that is definitely going to get its own Know Your Meme page. It almost feels like it’s out of 2013-era Tumblr. The Wonderland System is a Multiple System (person LARPing as a DID-sufferer) who has 217 alters.

    People are already documenting it fastidiously, too—fandom’s archival impulse is at it again.

  • The rise of very threatening GoFundMes. I’d be interested in a social history of the very threatening, identity-based GoFundMe.

    I think it was Jack the Perfume Nationalist who once pointed out that around 2014, there was a clear pivot-point where they just started popping up everywhere. They’re always replete with veiled threats of suicide, too. Maybe I’ll dig into this more later. I keep noticing references to suicide-threats as control mechanisms in Internet history books I read… 🧐📰

  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Tiny Furniture. Our next double-feature movie night is Scott Pilgrim and Tiny Furniture. I’ll set a date by the end of the week, but taking suggestions. Would it be too much to throw in some recommended reading, too? I don’t want anyone to feel like this is a homework assignment.