Since the Instagram algorithm discovered that I suffer from anorexia, it has bombarded me with eating-disorder-related content: “What I Eat in a Day” instagram reels, anti-diet “truth bombs,” and gym photos. This isn’t something new; it’s something I’ve seen on social media for years. However, I’ve now come across a new type of post in which young people openly document their eating disorder recovery, and it’s forced me to stop scrolling past and pay attention.
People offer candid portrayals of the realities of eating disorder recovery in these posts: before-and-after photos, pictures of food or themselves with food, even hospital shots. This attitude contrasts sharply with how I coped with my adolescent anorexia, marked by guilt and concealment. Then, I tried hard to conceal my bony arms to justify my weekly visits, my monitored lunch in the vise principal’s office, and my absence from school when I was admitted to the ICU.
While seclusion did not help my healing, I was concerned about the consequences of broadcasting this sensitive and nonlinear process on a site like Instagram. And, according to the experts I had a conversation with, I had reason to be concerned. “I don’t advocate that my patients develop eating disorder recovery social media profiles throughout their recovery,” said Erin Parks, a clinical researcher and the COO of Equip, a telemedicine platform dedicated to eating disorder therapy. “I believe the hazards exceed the advantages, and I would not want to put my patients in jeopardy.”
Social media’s harmful impact on body image is well-documented. According to research, social media use contributes to body image problems. In addition, the more time someone spends on social media, the more likely they will develop an eating disorders or a full-blown eating disorder. Considering that 73 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds on Instagram say they visit the site every day, and almost half say they see it many times each day, these trends take on a very ominous tone.
On the other hand, the preceding portrays those who are pulled into disordered eating by social media. On the surface, the behavior I had observed was the polar opposite: individuals seeking to utilize social media to help themselves recover from an eating disorder.
To mention a few popular hashtags, there are 4.2 million posts on Instagram with the hashtag #EDRecovery, 2.6 million with #EatingDisorderRecovery, and 2.2 million with #AnorexiaRecovery. While their contents differ, they tend to fall into predictable categories: food shots, body shots, inspiring phrases, and selfies with confessional remarks. Unfortunately, the impact of such information is unknown at this time. However, it’s vital to remember that the same factors that make social media helpful to rehabilitation — its egalitarianism, anonymity, and incubation of hyper-niche groups — also make it favorable to relapse. According to studies, the benefits of publicly documenting one’s rehabilitation are significant. One big advantage is accountability, a critical component of eating disorder therapy that has proven more challenging to come by during the epidemic. In a survey of people who posted about their recovery on social media, 83% felt the sense of accountability generated by their postings helped them stay on track.
Another important motivation for sharing eating disorder recovery stories is to feel less alone; social media accounts may be the only sites where young people feel free to express their realities adequately. Being able to do so is critical for people suffering from eating disorders, who are “desperate to be understood and get past their fixation with body image,” according to Gene Beresin, a psychiatrist and executive director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds. “The account is an important method to open up without fear or guilt.” That is a blessing.”
The therapeutic significance of online communities is undeniable, and research suggests that online support groups may aid people suffering from eating disorders in their rehabilitation. However, social media isn’t precisely a virtual support group. The goal of helping is present, but it lacks the moderators found in an actual group therapy session — whether in-person or virtual — who can keep stuff on track.
“You can’t control how other people react,” Parks remarked, even tho you can control what you communicate. For example, if a post receives insufficient participation, it may create feelings of isolation or reinforce the pernicious eating disorder narrative of not being “sick enough.” And while trolls are always a risk on the internet, Beresin highlighted that any type of unwanted criticism may be especially harmful to people suffering from eating disorders, who are “exquisitely sensitive to rejection or devaluation.”
Then there are the hazards posed by the algorithms themselves, which frequently fail to recognize complexity, sometimes conflating eating disorder recovery information with weight loss or “fitness” content, or even pro-eating disorder postings. For example, one TikTok analysis found that #EDrecovery posts demonstrated an “increasingly blurred boundary between ED recovery and pro-ED content.” In contrast, another extensive social media review found that the effectiveness of social platforms in promoting recovery is “underexplored” despite housing both recovery communities and those that encourage dangerous behaviors.
Another flaw in #EDrecovery narratives is how they portray eating disorders to others. Because so many articles focus on the body, they might promote the myth that eating disorders are motivated by vanity or a desire to attract the male gaze. In addition, because many of the people behind these accounts fit the pattern of the “average” person with an eating disorder — a young, white, skinny female — they might reinforce prejudices about who gets these disorders, excluding those who are struggling but aren’t reflected in the prevailing narrative.
The subject of whether social media may help in recovery is debatable; in fact, the specialists I spoke with were split on whether they would suggest that their patients create recovery accounts even if they followed the recommended practices listed below. However, they said that following this advice would help make an account more beneficial than harmful.
Be truthful. Beresin added, “The opportunity to speak up freely and share one’s challenges, disappointments, and accomplishments are freeing and powerful,” “Posts should explain where you are in your recovery, what has helped, what hasn’t, and where you need to go.”
Shift your attention away from the tangible. “Those in recovery should know that the actual transformation happens in their heads, not in anything that a camera can record,” Parks said, adding that she recommends avoiding publishing before-and-after images or any exact weight or size statistics. This suggestion is supported by research. For example, one study on selfies discovered that more “humanizing” self-portraits were connected with recovery, while those classified as “objectifying” were associated with disordered eating.
Participate in a discussion. To reap social media’s community benefits, users must use the site as a two-way street, interacting with others thru comments and messages. “The importance of this communication cannot be overstated.” “It serves as a type of platform for two or more people to discuss the rehabilitation process, “Beresin explained. This, however, necessitates keeping the line between constructive input and destructive trolling, the latter of which should be avoided.
Enlist assistance. Beresin strongly advises individuals to share their recovery journey with the aid of a therapist, mentor, or close family member who can help them understand their encounters and give emotional support as needed.
Be deliberate in your follow-ups. Because the algorithm does not always get it right, someone in recovery must be rigorous about unfollowing or banning triggering accounts. “There’s a simple test here,” Parks explained. “You may ask yourself, ‘Would I suggest this account to my best friend, who is also in recovery?’ If the answer is no, you should probably not follow it either. “
Social media may make you feel worse, and taking this chance may be foolish for those navigating the difficult path of eating disorder recovery. However, as Beresin stated, “narratives are crucially essential in [the] rehabilitation process,” In today’s environment, social media is the primary area where people build and share their narratives. It may be pretty powerful for people recovering from eating disorders, but it demands attention and dedication, both for their benefit and the sake of others.