The Eating Disorder Community On Social Media
It all started with a picture. Well, with a comment, really. A heinous, disgusting, and violent comment about my shape/weight on Instagram. The comment was quickly deleted and the Instagram user was immediately blocked, but the words are permanently etched in my mind.
This person's words really bothered me. You see, I am quite aware that I am thin (and I am currently receiving professional support). I am not in denial, and therefore, I knew what this person was saying was incredibly far from the truth. I can recognize that I am not fat (note: I don't like this word), and that I don't need to stop eating. But what bothered me was that this person was praying on my vulnerability. He or she could see that I am struggling weight-wise, and wanted to quite literally rub salt in the wound.
I am so lucky that I am at a point in my recovery where I can disregard comments like this and not let them affect my behaviours. But, imagine if I was feeling particularly vulnerable, and found a message like this on one of my pictures? What kind of a disastrous outcome would this lead to?
This leads me to today's topic: the eating disorder community on social media. I have continuous debates (with myself) about social media, and these debates increased in frequency and intensity this past week after the whole incident mentioned above. I LOVE social media - I really benefit from sharing my story with all of you, and it gives me incredible joy (and joy, to be honest, is hard for me to come by these days). That being said, social media can also be a very dangerous place. I feel like a lot of the discussion around social media has been centred on comparisons, the fitness industry, and the overall portrayal of the "perfect" life. But what is lacking from the discussion is the eating disorder niche that has really developed into something powerful on Instagram.
For those of you who have been following my journey for awhile, you might remember that a couple of years ago, I had a second Instagram account. What originally started as a private account where I would post pictures of my meals as a way for my dietitian to track progress, I eventually opened the account to the public and used the platform to share my successes (and obstacles) with others. I would regularly post pictures of my meals and snacks for friends and strangers alike, updating my followers on my journey to recovery.
Posting pictures of food intake on Instagram is done for a variety of reasons. These reasons include: 1) accountability; 2) to seek encouragement; 3) to document victories won; 4) to share with the world the inevitable struggles of eating disorders. Initially, I received a lot of support from this second account. Taking pictures of my food was something I really enjoyed (food photography is trendy but can also be a beautiful thing!), and I shared the highs and lows of my daily life in eating disorder recovery.
But what started out as a positive source of support eventually became a little self-destructive. As my health started to decline, I spent my time stressing about taking pictures of my food intake while trying to show my followers that I was doing okay, when in reality, I was crashing. I would post pictures of food that I wouldn't actually eat - food that would end up in the garbage. I spent hours and hours scrolling through pictures of food that showed up on my home feed. I was frequently checking accounts labelled as "TRIGGER WARNING ACCOUNTS", where girls (and boys) would post controversial pictures of thin bodies, hospital stays, and small portions.
I did end up signing out of my second Instagram account, and have not posted anything ever since. While it initially gave me a way to express myself and my journey, the platform eventually became harmful to my mental health and my recovery. I didn't like that people would comment on others' shape/weight (i.e. "I'm worried about you, girl") and I was tired of people commenting on portion sizes (i.e. "Is that all you had for dinner? It's small..."). Currently, I only use my personal account (@meghanturnbull) and while I continue to share my story, there is much less of a focus on food. I do continue to follow some of the people I had "met" on my old account, and do still follow some people who are in the process of eating disorder recovery (in addition to those who have achieved their own personal definition of "full recovery"). However, I am very, very selective with who I choose to follow, in order to protect myself.
Social media is a wonderful thing. I have met some really incredible people through Instagram, and it has provided me with a means to share what I'm going through (both in terms of pictures and captions, but also as a vehicle to lead people to my blog, where I am able to give more detail). But social media in the eating disorder community can also be very, very cruel. There can be a huge amount of competition, and people are often quick to judge others. Like the person who commented on my photo above, some people feel that the ability to hide behind a screen gives them the right to verbally attack others and pray on their vulnerability.
The constant debate I have in my head is: IS SOCIAL MEDIA WORTH IT? There are so many cons to Instagram. It can be incredibly frustrating for me, as someone who is navigating the recovery process. I get angry at social media sometimes, as it can be an incredibly negative space. It is also very, very complicated. However, I do feel immense joy from using social media, too. As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, Instagram, Facebook, and my blog have allowed me to connect with so many of you. Hearing your stories, and hearing how some of my words and experiences have resonated with you, allows me to feel GOOD about the work that I'm doing. And all of that work is made possible thanks to social media.
With social media continuing to evolve, I think a constant re-evaluation of "do the pros outweigh the cons?" will be necessary every step of the way.
For me, right now, the answer to that question is YES. The nasty Instagram comment definitely threw me for a loop this week, especially as I began to think about what a harmful place the Internet can be for someone in recovery from an eating disorder. But, currently, I still do enjoy interacting with all of you online. Thanks to social media platforms, I don't feel so alone. I am able to put my thoughts into words and share them with whoever is willing to open up their phones/tablets/laptops and read, and for that reason, I will continue to post.
Who knows... maybe a year down the road, the pros won't be able to outweigh the negative aspects of this online world. But, through continual re-evaluation, I'll cross that bridge when we get there.
I am curious, though: are you part of the eating disorder community on Instagram? How do you feel about social media in general? Do the pros outweigh the cons for you? Feel free to leave a comment down below - I will check back regularly!
HAVE A BEAUTIFUL WEEK.