Starvation as Source Material: Laia Abril's "Thinspiration Fanzine" Turns Anorexia Into Art

Part of what art is supposed to do is upset sensibilities and shake up the status quo. But there are other, unintended consequences.
Publish date:
February 12, 2013
art, body, photography, anorexia, laia abril

I’ve seen hundreds of pictures of emaciated women. In haute couture. Bathing suits. Hospital gowns. Sometimes in nothing at all. Men have only recently entered the ranks, with gay men leading the way, but outside of the World War II Auschwitz concentration camp photos, the equivalent bottomless photo pit for men doesn’t exist.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. But what is new and uncomfortable for me, what I haven’t figured out how I feel about yet, is the “art” made of, from, and about anorexia.

In 2009, Ivonne Thein digitally manipulated photos of bandaged young women until they were impossibly thin. The exhibit titled “Thirty-Two Kilos” (approximately seventy pounds) was Thein’s artistic statement on the relationship between high fashion and anorexia.

More recenlty, Barcelona-based photographer Laia Abril has produced a documentary art book called “Thinspiration Fanzine,” which to my naked ear sounds like a tribute. It’s not, but that’s certainly how I’d hear it if anorexia or bulimia were my issues -- and that’s what I find so bothersome.

Abril photographs emaciated women. More accurately, she takes pictures of pictures, photographing self-portraits of emaciated women that have been posted on myriad online thinspiration sites.

Abril says, "I re-take their self-portraits, photographing and reinterpreting their images from the screen, resulting the visual response to the bond between obsession and self-destruction; the disappearance of one’s own identity. The project is a personal and introspective journey across the nature of obsessive desire and the limits of auto-destruction, denouncing disease’s new risk factors: social networks and photography."

But eating disorders aren’t new; millions of women have been diagnosed as anorexic since 1873. Neither are social media or photography for that matter. Although there’s a generation or two that aren’t familiar with them -- Baby Boomers and their parents, the Silent Generation -- thinspiration sites aren’t new.

Websites filled with photos of girls and women who range from slim to skeletal started cropping up once girls figured out how to upload photos. And that was before digital cameras and iPhones. Search thinspiration on YouTube and you’ll get over 12,000 video results. Use the term “thinspo” and the number jumps to over 16,000 results. Over 2 million pages on Google. On Pinterest or Twitter, you just keep scrolling and scrolling. And scrolling.

In a recent interview, Abril said, “My knowledge of this community comes firsthand. I started a long-term project on eating disorders in 2010 after one year in treatment to cure 10 years of bulimia... (T)he project has evidenced a lot of contradictions...The duality of how someone wants to be desired and sexy while she tries to get destroyed and punished daily, is as a woman, a real brain collapse”

Will a pro-ana photo documentary validate the girls whose self-portraits are included, inspiring other girls to reach for those same extremes, or will it educate the ignorant? I can’t imagine the media-deprived life necessary to be ignorant of how widespread and devastating anorexia and bulimia are to young women. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness; the death count from anorexia alone is twelve times higher than all other causes of death for women from age 15 – 24.

Beyond that, I don’t understand how exposing the evidence -- gaunt self-portraits displayed proudly as accomplishments or goals to strive for -- without suggesting some sort of solution changes anything at all in the world.

And so the question comes down to: Does an artist have a social responsibility to his or her audience beyond reflecting the way (s)he sees the world? It’s the same question that gets raised around violent or misogynistic lyrics.

Laia Abril is a well-respected documentary photographer, and “Thinspiration – Fanzine” has been well-received, lauded on photography sites internationally.

Abril’s use of the word “fanzine” is a statement on the community, a reflection. But I don’t understand how the community itself, the pro-ana/mia sites, the thinspo pages, the network of food deprivation can see it as anything but what it says it is. A fanzine, an admiration of all things anorexia. How can these women and girls be anything but thrilled to see their photos on even more websites, in stores, in respected journals? In a culture of reality TV where there really is no such thing as bad publicity, being part of an art piece is like being queen for a day.

And yet, art is art and everyone doesn’t have to like it or appreciate it. Part of what art is supposed to do is upset sensibilities and shake up the status quo. But there are other, unintended consequences.

When Ivonne Thein's photos found their way to pro-ana sites, the Washington Post noted comments like this posted: “Those pics are so, so beautiful! I want to look like them! They look so fragil [sic] and like an angel.” That wasn’t the reaction Thein was looking for. What effect will Laia Abril’s work have? I don’t know what the answers are. I only know the questions.