'Gabrisagacre14'/wikimedia commons/CC BY-SA 4.0
Source: 'Gabrisagacre14'/wikimedia commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

A recent study reported in the Journal of Eating Disorders suggests a possible downside to celebrity disclosures of eating disorders (EDs). Particularly for highly popular celebrities, publicly disclosing anorexia or bulimia nervosa may lead to an increase in searches for pro-eating disorder websites and information. 

Celebrities regularly share the details of their mental health with fans. Singer Elle King used Instagram as a platform to communicate her struggles with PTSD. Actor Jon Hamm revealed during a magazine interview that he found both antidepressants and therapy helpful for battling depression. Kendall Jenner employed her app to talk with fans about her experiences with anxiety and panic attacks, while her sister, Kim Kardashian, used her reality show as a platform for talking about her own battles with anxiety.

In general, the public responds well to these self-disclosures. When celebrities are open about their experiences with mental disorders, it can help to reduce stigma and provide inspiration for those who may struggle with similar issues. In particular, when celebrities share that they have sought treatment for a mental disorder, others may be encouraged to do the same. 

However, there are several reasons to think that celebrity disclosures of anorexia or bulimia may generate different reactions than disclosures of anxiety disorders or mood disorders. Young women in particular may view anorexia and bulimia as not very serious, perhaps because some of the symptoms of these disorders (for example, body dissatisfaction) are so widespread. The type of stigma those with anorexia or bulimia face may also differ from other disorders.  One study found that compared to someone described as having depression, a woman described as having anorexia was more likely to be seen as responsible for her own disorder or as using her disorder to gain attention. 

But perhaps most importantly, anorexia and bulimia may be unique among mental disorders in their ability to sometimes inspire envy or admiration. It’s difficult to imagine someone saying, “I wish I could be more depressed!” or “If only I could increase my anxiety!” But there are some who praise those with anorexia or bulimia for their discipline or determination. In a culture so focused on weight and dieting, it’s not uncommon to hear people talk about these eating disorders in aspirational terms. 

The notion that anorexia or bulimia are aspirational for some is borne out in the prevalence of pro-eating disorder websites (often referred to as pro-ana or pro-mia). These websites cater to those seeking specific strategies to maintain dangerous weight loss behaviors. Young people (particularly young women) are the most frequent consumers of these websites. A study of adolescents in Belgium found that by 11th grade, 13% of girls had visited a pro-ana website.

Images of very thin celebrities, often those who have publicly disclosed that they are battling an eating disorder, are regularly included on these websites as “thinspiration.” For example, actress Lily Collins recently starred in To the Bone, a movie based on Collins’ years of battling anorexia. Despite Collins’ stated goal of using the movie to encourage education about the dangers of eating disorders, pro-ED websites frequently include images of Collins at her thinnest as inspiration.  

Pexels/CC0
Source: Pexels/CC0

Researchers out of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada recently conducted a novel test of whether a celebrity disclosure of an eating disorder could drive more traffic to pro-ED websites. After compiling a list of celebrities who publicly disclosed having an eating disorder, the researchers selected Lady Gaga as the highest profile celebrity in the group (based on the number of likes on her official Facebook page and her number of Twitter followers). Using Google Trends, the authors examined the rate of searches in the U.S. for terms like thinspiration and pro-ana in the month before, month of, and month after Lady Gaga’s disclosure. They found a clear increase from the month before to the month after. For example, uses of the search term pro ana websites increased 52% over the time period examined.

However, the authors did not find a similar pattern for three other celebrities who disclosed having an eating disorder (Demi Lovato, Kesha, and Snookie). They speculated that such effects may emerge for only for the most high profile celebrities. Lada Gaga has many millions more Twitter followers and Facebook page “likes” than the next most popular celebrity who disclosed an ED.

Though more research is needed to confirm this pattern, there is something search engines can do now to combat the influence of pro-ED websites. In an effort to reach those considering suicide, Google currently provides the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at the top of search results in response to search terms like “how to commit suicide.” A similar strategy could be applied in response to searches related to celebrity eating disorders, with search engines providing information on eating disorder recovery and treatment at the top of search results.

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