Weighty issues embedded in ‘#thinspiration’ controversy

A US television host’s inadvertent use of the controversial hashtag has sparked a heated debate

Adam Richman, the US television host, has always struggled with his weight. Presenting a show called Man v Food in which he has to take on massive eating challenges has not helped. But over the past few months he has slimmed down considerably, losing more than 27kg, thanks to a rigorous exercise programme.

Showing off his new body in a photograph posted on Instagram last month, he used the hashtag #thinspiration. The heavens of social media opprobrium opened.

The hashtag refers to the lengths to which people go in order to lose weight. It can be used triumphantly as in “look at all the weight I’ve lost from tough and constant gym work-outs”.

But #thinspiration is controversial and loaded with ambiguity. It has been appropriated by pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia circles as a slogan used urging people to continue getting thinner.


Richman was apparently using the term in its relatively more benign sense. However, there was a vicious backlash to his Instagram photo, with many saying the presenter was being “irresponsible”, given that he is a public figure.

It was a social-media argument that got out of hand: the more Richman was attacked, the more he lashed back. At one stage he replied to someone who had criticised him by saying: “Grab a razor blade and draw a bath. I doubt anyone will miss you.” Richman’s show has now been cancelled.

Musician Professor Green has also been in the thinspiration wars of late after using the hashtag under a picture of his wife, Millie Macintosh.

‘Fitspiration’ The couple were similarly accused of encouraging eating disorders and were so upset by the criticism that Macintosh decided to change the hashtag “thinspiration” to “fitspiration” and release a statement in which he said

: “I look slim but I have got muscle definition. If I was putting up pictures of my ribs sticking out like I looked unhealthily thin, then I would be irresponsible.”

Previously the UK television presenter and model Alexa Chung said she was forced into closing down her Instagram and Twitter accounts after being accused of promoting "thinspiration" by posting photos of her slim but healthy physique.

She said at the time: “It angers me because I don’t want to be a pin-up for young girls just for being thin. I don’t want to be admired for being thin as opposed for being dressed well – and I don’t want the two to get confused.”

What has made the debate about Richman more complex is that one of his harshest critics is a woman named Amber Sarah, who has labelled herself in public as a “fat activist”.

There are many different voices within what is known as the “fat acceptance movement” but the one common belief is that fat people should not be subject to social stigma and job discrimination.

Thinspiration has become such a recent buzz word due to the mistaken mainstream belief (and one much peddled by the media) that losing weight is an end in itself. But you can be thin and unhealthy just as you can be healthy and overweight.

In this sense, the debate about the use of the term thinspiration is – all the name-calling and personal abuse aside – a healthy development. Thinner is not better if you are abusing your body by starving yourself or exercising to dangerous extremes.

Richman and Macintosh have evidently put in work to get healthy looking physiques but the use of the word “thin” or any variant thereof beside photos on social media can send out conflicting messages, especially to younger followers, though Macintosh showed direction by favouring the term “fitspiration”.

Dirty word

Due to the

social media travails of Richman and Macintosh, the term “thinspiration” has now become a dirty word. In his defence, Richman said he didn’t know the history of the term and used it only because, as he said: “I’ve long struggled with my body image and have worked very hard to achieve a healthy weight.”

Jacinta Hastings, chief executive of Bodywhys, the eating disorder association of Ireland, said “the difficulty with the term ‘thinspiration’ is the association with promoting dangerous behaviours”. It has been used among the pro-anorexia community, she said, with images of emaciated people posted online as images to “aspire” to – hence the term. “This can encourage anorexia as a lifestyle choice rather than an illness,” she said.

There have been calls for the thinspiration hashtag to be banned from popular social media sites but, as the comedian Lenny Bruce observed, banning a word only gives it more power to harm.

Both Richman and Professor Green innocently used the term and were not aware of its cultural context.

Social media hashtags may seem benign and innocuous, often written in haste or jest. But, as seen here, they can be a Pandora’s box.

What the controversy over the term has shown is that feelings run high and opinions can become polarised whenever talking about weight loss and body image. Best to take the heat out of the argument by emphasising fitness, not thinness.