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Arabs with eating disorders : How their online refuge is being threatened

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(Photo: Shutterstock)
The stigma around mental health issues in the Middle East is part of a long and ongoing cultural conversation. The lack of education on and access to mental health services in most communities has made many people suffering from mental illnesses and disorders flock to the internet for space, creating their own communities where they can vent and seek support from those in similar situations. This sparked the birth of the online Eating Disorder (ED) communities. اضافة اعلان

Anonymity is one of the most important factors for those struggling with eating disorders. This is due, in part, to the stigma surrounding mental illness in the region, and partly because of the inherently secretive nature of disordered eating; many people suffering from eating disorders find themselves resistant to treatment, except in extreme scenarios.
Anonymity is one of the most important factors for those struggling with eating disorders.

Unlike platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, which are highly tied to one’s real-life identity, on websites such as Pinterest and Tumblr there is no obligation to associate one’s name with anything being posted, thus enabling users to operate in total anonymity. Users can conceal their identities with ease, with little fear of those who know them personally finding their pages. Tumblr has become a particularly prominent hub in the online ED discourse, with the microblogging layout making it uniquely easy to create both image and textposts for users to express their struggles as they please.

The narrative around eating disorders often has the same face: white, skinny, western, female. However ED is not limited to one ethnic or geographical location, nor is it limited to a certain BMI or gender. In honor of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, Jordan News sought out Middle Eastern members of these ED communities to gain their unique perspective. All names and identifying information have been changed to protect the interviewees’ privacy.

“I wanted to find comfort when I joined Tumblr,” a 21-year-old woman user told Jordan News.

“I’m from Lebanon, and you know how Arabs are. My friends always point out whenever I gain weight, and praise me for losing weight. So I just started doing the thing that I knew would get praised.”

Another user, a 26-year-old woman from Egypt, told Jordan News: “I was always the chubbiest out of all my cousins, and my mom never failed to point that out. It got worse when all of them started getting marriage proposals and I did not. So I started eating less to try and lose weight, but that only made me binge more. Mom was angry with me for not losing weight, I was angry at myself for losing control. I did not know how to get out of the cycle. I still do not know how to be honest.”

“People think that I cannot possibly have anorexia since I am what people consider ‘fat’. I do all the [stuff] that makes people worry about skinny people. I eat way below the recommended caloric limit. I even ‘purge’ after large meals. But because I do not look like a stick, no one cares at all. They think it is worth it as long as I become skinny.

“That’s all people care about. Being skinny. Even if I destroy myself to get there.”

Tumblr’s relationship with this ED community is a rocky one at best. In its policy, it explicitly bans “Promotion or glorification of self-harm”, specifically citing “anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders” within the policy itself.

The policy does make it a point to mention that their aim is not to censor conversations.

“Dialogue about these behaviors is incredibly important and online communities can be extraordinarily helpful to people struggling with these difficult conditions. We aim for Tumblr to be a place that facilitates awareness, support and recovery, and we will remove only those posts or blogs that cross the line into active promotion or glorification of self-harm.”
Users can conceal their identities with ease, with little fear of those who know them personally finding their pages.
However, the user experience is quite different. Users within ED community have found Tumblr banning their blogs for a supposed violation of their terms of service. Users who fell victim to this often say that they in no way were violating Tumblr terms of service, and that they were simply sharing their experience with others, with no aim of glorifying their ED.

This issue was further exacerbated on December 21, 2021, when Tumblr’s iOS app had to repress certain content in order to comply with Apple’s App Store Guidelines. This change fragmented the Tumblr ED community, causing those who once sought solace in the app to have nowhere to turn to.

“Tumblr does not realize how badly it is silencing us.”

The Lebanese user told Jordan News: “This is the one place I have to talk to people about what I am going through. I do not have access to therapy, my family will not accept what I am saying. I cannot tell my friends in real life because they might tell my family. This is the only place I can vent.”

Another user told Jordan news: “This is the only community I have. I met such wonderful people here, they all encouraged me to recover. I am also a man, and no one cares if a man struggles with an ED, even in the west, let alone in the Middle East. We are just a bunch of mentally ill people trying our best to feel less alone.

“We are alone. No one in our community wants to help us. And now Tumblr wants to kick us off. What are we supposed to do?”


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