How social media hinders eating disorder recovery

This is our second blog post for Eating Disorder Awareness Week, written by our awesome ‘blinker’ Phoebe. We think it’s an extremely powerful piece on how social media can hinder eating disorder recovery. If you or someone you know needs help or advice on eating disorders, please contact BEAT via their website, or call them on 0808 801 0677

In the last few years, social media websites (most notably Instagram and Tumblr) have supposedly banned all pro eating disorder content. As much as they mean well, it is impossible to police such a rife problem over such huge internet platforms.

As well as whole websites being dedicated to pro anorexia and bulimia (pro-ana/pro-mia), social media houses enormous communities of eating disorder sufferers. Although not all individual accounts and groups are outright pro-ana, so called recovery accounts can have just as negative an effect on people. I speak from experience.

I have suffered with anorexia for roughly ten years; I began a true pursuit of recovery four years ago, and have had successes and lapses that I continue to learn from. In my decade of eating problems, social media has developed hugely and made great steps. In 2016 it was estimated that 63% of Brits use social media, along with 78% of the US population. Facebook is proven the most popular with over two billion active users.

It is not unusual to want to connect with people you can empathise with. In recent years, a vast number of eating disorder sufferers have taken to photo sharing app Instagram to log their experiences and meet others with similar problems. On the surface this sounds positive. Why wouldn’t it be helpful to find support that you may be lacking in real life? In this case, one of the major reasons it is not helpful is because eating disorders are fundamentally very competitive illnesses.

To someone without personal experience of these mental illnesses, that may sound bizarre. Why would anyone compete to be unwell? As a recovering anorexia sufferer myself, even I can’t give you a straight answer.

Eating disorders can be like a separate person living in your head, but the lines blur and it’s hard to determine what thoughts are yours, and which ones are the illness. Eating disorders can be all consuming and you lose yourself to them. The competitiveness can exhibit itself in a challenge you set yourself, but especially in comparing yourself to those similarly ill.

You'd be forgiven for assuming that by searching for positive-sounding hashtags on platforms like Instagram, you'd come across pro-recovery images and glances into the lives of people discovering themselves after suffering from an eating disorder. However, you are just as likely to be flooded with images of very underweight people and intricately arranged food. You may even see graphic photos of self-harm or IV tubes. It is an issue, that accounts of people who are not in recovery bleed into the more positive posts. It’s debateable whether the people making these posts should be held accountable for this triggering material, or if their mental ill health excuses them of responsibility

The main issue I want to bring to discussion is actually the matter of people using these internet mediums to document their return to health from eating disorders (primarily anorexia in these communities). One with less knowledge on such matters could look at these pages and see them to be positively encouraging. Were you to look more intently though, the problems are not well disguised.

You might see side-by-side “then and now” comparisons with photos of young women at their lowest weight and then their still-underweight-but-not-quite-as-drastically photos. I speak of this having been guilty of doing just that. Although these images are supposedly meant to exhibit progress (or at least weight gain), the true reason for posting them is often driven by the eating disorder. This is a form of body checking, a behaviour very common in ED sufferers. Posting photos for others to see is just one example of body checking; pinching at skin and fat on the body, measuring the circumference of body parts, and of course frequent weighing of one’s self are examples of body checking.

With the warped self-image that comes with eating disorders, responses from outsiders – especially shock and worry - can appease the illness. Even those finding happiness in a healthy body still have urges to post pictures from their disordered past, often to prove that they were underweight once upon a time. People who are seemingly healthy looking having been weight restored often feel like their illness won’t be taken seriously anymore, so it feels important to demonstrate how ill they are/were. This applies also to people suffering with an ED who don’t fit the classic anorexic cookie cutter image of small and emaciated and white. It is the case that most people with eating disorders are not underweight and so they are mostly an invisible illness. This does not invalidate their experiences or mean they are healthy, but given the widely accepted stereotypes no wonder people feel the need to prove their illness is real.

This is a contributor to why social media can have a negative effect on recovery. With the constant need to prove yourself, there is no true letting go of the illness. ED sufferers often feel like their illness is a defining feature, and to let go of it would be to lose substance as a person. So even in recovery, the illness must somehow be present. In saying this I mean not to dismiss people’s hard work put into recovery; it is a vicious cycle of expectation and validation.

To come back to the matter of competition, comparing one underweight body to another is the tip of the iceberg. In the brief profile descriptions on people’s Instagram accounts you will often see acronyms of LW x/CW x/HW x/GW x (lowest weight/current weight/highest weight/goal weight). Other common footnotes are number of admissions to psychiatric and eating disorder hospitals, how many times a person had an NG feeding tube or a IV drip, even frequency of suicide attempts. These are used as markers to show off the severity of the person’s illness. The more severe, the more valid, the more impressive, the more successful. Or at least that is what is considered successful by people with eating disorders.

Envy is another surprising symptom of these illnesses. I myself have felt jealous of people whose BMI is lower than mine ever was. I’ve been jealous of others’ long term physical damage and longer hospital admissions than my own, even of being sectioned. These “achievements” of others made me feel like my anorexia was never bad enough to deserve treatment and I should have waited until the brink of death to commence my recovery. In reality, there is no “not ill enough”. Never will you feel ill enough to begin recovery. You won’t reach your ultimate goal weight and then think “Okay cool I’ll stop losing weight now”. Three years into recovery I still get distressed over the fact I didn’t lose more weight and go into organ failure. These are the frightening standards eating disorders set for people.

What else in these online communities that can make the recovery process all the more difficult is the unrealistic picture that is painted by these accounts. There is not a great cross section of representation; the people welcomed into the community are very similar and it can feel like there’s no room for sufferers who aren’t under 25, white, well off, materially privileged. That is not to say that those people suffer any less in their illness, but it does make the community feel closed off to people outside of that description. Eating disorders do not discriminate, and people from all walks of life experience them; different ethnicities and cultures, genders, religions, classes and intelligence. Surely the communities to support them should be diverse and inclusive?

Recovery from an eating disorder is many things. The view you get of recovery online is often through rose tinted glasses. There is no doubt that it’s amazing and worth it, but there are dark parts of the process that need to be talked about more regardless of how unpleasant and embarrassing may be. Recovery can be coffee and cake for the first time and getting a whole new wardrobe after throwing away your “ill clothes” but there is seldom talk of the pain. Recovery is weeks of constipation. It is sweating profusely. It is eating beyond physical and emotional comfort. It’s regaining cognitive function and feeling overwhelmed with emotions that have been repressed. Recovery is unreliable and unpredictable. And beautiful. And terrifying.

Between the bragging rights thinly veiled as raising awareness, not feeling part of an elite group, and blurring of the reality of eating disorders and recovery, it is no wonder why people get stuck in a rut. There is uncomfortable comfort in remaining ill, or in a quasi-state of recovery. That way you never push your own boundaries and remain part of the club. But with that you won’t experience the real comfort and different kind of community that comes with recovery and meeting people whose lives don’t revolve around food and weight an exercise. For me, delving into a world beyond treatment and therapy and food photos akin to intricate art, was the turning point in my illness. Once you remove yourself from an obsessive clique, you start to experience real life. If you can find support and friends in these communities, I do not want to detract from that. However you can’t stay this way and truly recover if you are just obsessing in a slightly different way. It’s not compatible with life.