Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

The negative impact of social media on eating disorder recovery

CW: discussion of eating disorders and eating disorder recovery

Most of us love food. Even on the days where I found myself living off of under three hundred calories a day, I still loved food. Food became my life; I drew it, I made Pinterest boards about it, I followed just about every single Instagram page I could find that was about it. All of this just contributed to one very negative mentality surrounding food.

If I couldn’t eat it, then I could see it, I could read the captions, salivate over the videos and the stories, all while thriving off of the gratification of knowing that I wasn’t the one eating it. The more grotesquely overindulgent the content was, the more my mental appetite for it grew.

I can still tell you off the top of my head exactly how many calories were in each photo on @foodbible. I would be morbidly fascinated about how @cheatdayeats could appear to eat so many calories, but still look ‘normal’. Of course, to me, ‘normal’ was still horrifying. Despite this, I couldn’t seem to match the dots between all of those calories, and a few days in the gym being able to all equate to a healthy lifestyle. In my mind, it was all or nothing.

Instagram, of course, didn’t start the trend of documenting our food

Another favourite pastime of mine would be to watch countless ‘what I eat in a day’ Instagram stories by unbelievably beautiful, and often dangerously thin models, and justify them to my friends- ‘look at this amazing meal she’s made though!’ Of course, we all know that what we see on social media isn’t authentic, but so many accounts make such a good show of it that we find ourselves, despite our better judgement, pulled into the lie.

Instagram, of course, didn’t start the trend of documenting our food. Letters and diaries from history all detail lavish banquets, right down to snatched little snacks. Renaissance painters all painted still lifes of food or added it into their portraits for extra detail. With social media dominating the lives of so many of us, however, the power of sharing, and lying, has become so much more prevalent in our lives.

Looking back at my own feed, I can see now that I was sharing more pictures of ‘my’ food at the times when I was doing worse. Of course, it wasn’t my food. It was my friend’s disappointing, yet supposedly ‘award-winning’ banana bread, it was my partner’s cheesy garlic bread as well as the 16 pack of my favourite doughnuts, which I desperately tried to resist but ended up crying myself to sleep over. Yet, there I was – proudly showing the world how I am just about to take that bite, that the way I am eating is normal. That I was like every other human being, despite my hair and nails falling out, my digestive system not being able to work, continually wearing scarves and jumpers in the summer and still being cold, and my body literally starting to consume itself.

The toxicity of Instagram wasn’t in the models or the photoshopping 

Those days are thankfully behind me, but in many ways, I found that my recovery was even more toxic and that there’s little discussion surrounding this. My recovery, or rather, what I was being told my recovery ought to be like involved ditching the Instagram models and the food pages. Instead, ‘nutritionists’ and ‘lifestyle experts’ began to enter my radar. Pretty pictures of painfully laid out salads, bright-looking vegan soups or smoothies and people who told you the best way to eat well was only if you were using single, pure ingredients were the new accounts that I searched for.

Being an individual with a very complex white blood cell disease which manifested itself in a variety of allergies, I wasn’t at the liberty of moral high ground eating. I began to understand that the toxicity of Instagram wasn’t in the models or the photoshopping that the world is so quick to blame. It was the ‘fitness’ accounts telling people how to have a flat tummy while not explaining that you will also get huge thigh muscles at the same time. It was specific individuals who profit off of lying about having conditions and claim to cure them through ‘clean’ or ‘sugar-free’ or ‘paleo’ diets. It was also the pages that engaged in guilt-tripping and preaching to impressionable individuals that their diet choices make them a better individual.

All we can do is try our best to educate

I was lucky to escape it, but I can understand why so many people fall out of their anorexia and straight into orthorexia. Boys who are obsessed over their muscles, or their perceived lack thereof buying into ‘protein empires’, thinking that an egg overdose and a three-hour session in the gym will make them into Chris Hemsworth are also the victims of the toxic side of fitness Instagram. These accounts are feeding their body dysmorphia to a point which we should all be very uncomfortable with. The sick reality of it is that there is very little we can do. Instagram won’t take down these so-called ‘safe’ accounts, nor will the ‘food experts’ claim that their green smoothies and banana pancakes have any effect on this secret epidemic. All we can do is try our best to educate.

Understand the truth of the accounts that you follow. Unfollow anyone who profits off of your guilt and generates shame in you. Finally, if you really want an eye-opener, take a look at @thefitnesschef_ on Instagram to really understand the impact of diet, and so-called ‘wellness’ culture. The truth isn’t always what they want you to believe.

If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this article, contact Warwick Wellbeing Services or look on the NHS website to find support relating to mental health, eating disorders and general support as well as the helpline numbers for individual issues. Beat is a UK-based eating disorder charity which features support and guidance for anyone going through anything like this. 

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