A series of studies found that people who look at art featuring thin human figures before eating tend to consume less. The Cut reported the details of the study, in which 114 people were exposed to either a picture of sculptures by Alberto Giacometti or a plain blue screen, while eating blueberries or chocolate. Those who looked at the artwork ate less of both foods. Viewing the art was most effective for people who were ‘restrained eaters’ – those who regularly try to lose weight. The implication is that images of thin figures can be a tool for people who are trying to control their weight by eating less. The researchers are exploring how ‘environmental cues’ like a poster on a vending machine, or a screensaver of an image of thin people, can help people control their weight.

For anyone familiar with the ‘thinspiration’ and ‘thinspo’ hashtags, these findings may not be particularly surprising. Social media can be a powerful tool for the pursuit of weight loss and dieting goals, where images of successful slimming shared by others are used as inspiration. However #thinspiration has been problematised for contributing to, and in some cases actively encouraging, anorexia and bulimia. Users can post and access content that overtly or implicitly fuels eating disorders, rather than promoting healthy weight-loss levels and means of achieving them.

A photo posted by @thinspo_queen_ on

The effect of the Giacommeti pictures on the viewers provides evidence for the power of images to affect eating behaviour without the viewer thinking about it consciously. In the context of social network cultures which are driven by visual images and social influence, understanding how this process works is important.

Concerns about the harmful effects of thinspiration led Pinterest to ban pro-anorexia pin boards in 2012. Instagram has fluctuated between an overt ban, making #thinspiration unsearchable, and allowing it but warning viewers that their search is leading them to graphic content. However in 2016, Wired reported research which found that this strategy had backfired, as users who wanted to access thinspo content and communities simply came up with other variants of the search terms. The researchers argued that the tags should be reinstated so that when users searched “thinspiration” they would find a mixture of content and be served eating disorder recovery stories too, rather than finding only the hardline pro-anorexia community and content.