Digital Communities and the Cultivation and Normalization of Eating Disorders Open Access

Bodge, Alice (Spring 2021)

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The Internet is a public commodity that hosts online communities and digital media. These communities welcome users who share interests, lifestyles, and hobbies. Mirroring reality, social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter allow for human beings to create online cultures. Humans have always desired to belong to a community, and digital ones are no different. The affordances of social media allow for online communities to have rapid communication and constant access.

This can be beneficial to society, as it allows for the user to create social bonds and find communities online. However, due to the social media affordances, online communities can transform into toxic spaces; these spaces can negatively impact the user’s holistic health through the manifestation of digital media. The constant exposure to language, comments, and digital media (photographs, messages, videos) can influence the user to develop unhealthy tendencies. 

This development occurs by prolonged exposure to social media and digital media; membership of an online dieting community, the viewing of edited photographs, and participation in pro-anorexia forums are all examples. Online communities can foster toxic environments and normalize eating disorders, putting the user at risk. Eating disorders are deadly mental illnesses that are often stigmatized or misunderstood. In the US, 10-15% of adults suffer from a serious eating disorder (“Eating Disorder Statistics”). This percent only acknowledges diagnosed eating disorders, failing to account for those with unrecognized disordered habits. Four diagnosable eating disorders exist: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and orthorexia.

I intend to explore these online communities and their relationship to cultivating and normalizing eating disorders. This research is extremely relevant to me, as I myself struggled with a debilitating eating disorder. Through my experience, I can attest that prolonged exposure to digital media and online communities exacerbated my mental illness. My research seeks to understand how communities were built online initially; then, why users join them and create culture. Throughout my research, I have not intended to judge whether digital media is good or bad. Rather, I analyzed interactions between users and digital media to understand how online communities come to be so toxic. 

Table of Contents



Chapter 1A: The Foundations of Social Media 6

Chapter 1B: The Development and Dangers of Eating Disorders 12


Chapter 2B: Self-Objectification and Media’s Beauty Standards 25

Chapter 2C: Social Media Influencers 34


Case Study 1: Tiktok, Memes, and Mukbangs: Toxic Language Use 42

Case Study 2: Misinformation within Digital Media 47

Case Study 3: The YouTube Algorithm and Restriction Media 53

Case Study 4: Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia Forums 59

Appendix 69


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