Social media and recovery

When I wanted to try and recover, more or less by myself, I looked in a lot of places for support. Of course, to my partners and friends but I also looked for people who had also had my experiences and could explain to me or, at least, understand what the hell is going on and what to do about it. Some of that involved reading self-help books or looking at blogs or videos. A lot of it also came from social media; a particular version of social media, crafted around people like myself struggling with eating disorders.

It’s interesting to see how ideas about recovery are reflected and viewed in online recovery spaces. I spoke about this in my previous blog post; the differing ideologies around recovery. The reason most people access and join these spaces is to find like-minded individuals who share their experiences, to gain access to peer to peer support, to find more information about their eating disorder and how to recover from it and to provide advice for others in similar situations. There are many overlapping communities within this.

Explicitly pro eating disorder recovery social media comprises of a mix of individuals charting their personal recovery journeys, professionals such as dietitians or therapists sharing information and more professionalised recovered or recovering individuals sharing explicit advice on how to recover, what they did to recover and what is required for recovery. There are, in fact, ‘influencers’ or ‘life coaches’ within this world – often young people who chart their recovery journeys in a very public fashion, sharing with their viewers what they have experienced along the way.

Eating disorder recovery ‘influencers’ usually do things like post videos of themselves eating in recovery, challenging ‘fear foods’ and giving tips and advice as well as sharing the symptoms they experience in recovery and how they dealt with them. This can take the form of blogs, TikTok posts, Instagram posts, reels and Youtube content. This can be helpful to someone in recovery who is not able to get answers from professionals easily, or struggle to access treatment, for example, as they can see that their experiences are ‘normal’ or expected.

My own experience has been that, particularly early on, it was very useful for me to find blogs and videos about what will happen when you’re early in recovery. Things such as stomach bloating, cramps, GI issues, fat distribution and so on were all topics I found helpful to read about and to reassure myself that what I was experiencing was to be expected. There are also topics that many medical professionals don’t tend to acknowledge so often such a phenomenon termed ‘Extreme Hunger’ which seems to be a fairly common experience amongst people recovering from a restrictive eating disorder but doesn’t have so much medical acknowledgement. These are feelings of intense sustained hunger that seem to go over and above regular hunger cues; a way of your body attempting to compensate for extended calorie deficit. In someone with an eating disorder these feelings can be extremely distressing and sharing experiences about it can help with feeling less alone in it.

At it’s most benevolent the primary aim of many pro recovery influencers, or even smaller accounts, tend to be towards encouraging others to recover, sharing experiences with one another and helping with tips and advice on how to navigate this difficult time in your life. The idea is to help one another feel less alone – often users interact directly with one another, share content and create posts about various topics and post affirmations to encourage others. There are also those who use their accounts like a journal, posting updates from their lives and what they are struggling with which can help others to see that they have something in common with them and that other people understand their experiences.

Many of these accounts are run by young people – partially because it’s young people who tend to use social media the most and also because they are the demographic most likely to suffer with eating disorders. Inevitably, then, some of the wider social media trends and style come into play. Content must be short, snappy, assertive and follow memes and trends that are currently popular. This inevitably simplifies complex messages, such as what is best in recovery, diverse experiences and also glosses over important differences like class background, access to treatment etc.

One of the most popular forms of eating disorder recovery content is posting about what food one is eating. This takes the form of, or riffs off, a wider trend of ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos, reels and TikToks. Of course, it stands to reason that a lot of content will focus on food; the key unifying factor of all eating disorders.

Yet, oddly, much of this content mimics what I would describe as ‘wellness’ and diet culture related content. The ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos typically begin with a thin, athletic looking woman serenely showing her toned stomach in the mirror before going on to show us her breakfast green smoothie, protein bars, oatmeal bowls and courgette pasta filled day. Some even post calorie content and a break down of macros of their meals (if you don’t know what macros are you are truly blessed but basically it just means nutritional content such as amount of protein, carbs or fats in a meal).

The point of these videos is supposedly to give people ‘inspiration’ for what they should be eating, some even include disclaimers like ‘this is what’s right for me, it might not be right for you’ etc. Yet, as ever, their actual consequence is usually to idealise and glorify certain body shapes, ways of eating, ways of being ‘healthy’ and also a certain aesthetic that can only really be obtained with a reasonable amount of wealth or the appearance of wealth. The food is often perfectly arranged, fresh produce or branded protein shakes, bars and supplements. How food looks is a huge part of this type of content – there are hundreds of takes on ‘oatmeal’ bowls with fruit, chocolate and smoothies thrown in or baked oats or whatever the latest take on this is. Sometimes they also include clips of workout routines interspersed. They exist, in my view, to ‘flex’ i.e. to show an idealised version of someone’s life being better than you!

They also exist firmly within the realms of ‘diet culture’. Eating disorder recovery versions of these videos are a little different – they’re less likely to show the persons body, tend to show less super healthy versions of food and tend to show things like calorie content less. However, I wouldn’t describe them as in direct opposition or creating any sort of counter-culture to the original videos. Many of them also focus on the aesthetics of the food, current food trends and an idealised version of what food and recipes it is possible for the average person to create.

People with eating disorders are obsessed with food. It’s because we’re so damn hungry all the time, even if we don’t feel it directly. I’ve personally watched what must be hundreds and hundreds of these videos and it wasn’t because I was feeling super pumped and into recovery. You want to compare. You want to reassure yourself that you’re eating ‘the right things’. You want to micro-manage your food intake. Do the recovery versions of these videos really help with this tendency?

I understand why people make them. There’s an argument to say that it can be positive to show yourself eating in recovery, to show people it’s not something to be afraid of and let them see that it is possible to do so. Sometimes people also film themselves eating ‘fear foods’ to show the struggle of it but also that it’s possible to overcome those fears. It’s a way, also, of showing the journey and progress as it is made. The most significant part of eating disorder recovery is, of course, the eating. I don’t doubt that this can be helpful for some people to see. What’s interesting is that people posting this content often get criticised for things like ‘not eating enough’ in someone else’s view – the assumption being they’ve shown every single thing that has passed their lips. I think that has more to do with the commenter than the content creator themselves but I do think it’s symptomatic of some of the less healthy reactions and tendencies.

There is also a specific sub-genre of recovery account which seems fully submerged in ‘wellness’ culture insofar that the person chose to eat more but caveats this with a serious focus on exercise and strength training. There is a lot of body checking, comparison photos and claims about eating large amount of calories but managing to maintain a certain slim but toned physique. Some even become personal trainers and advocate a focus on strength and exercise training over calorie restriction. The distinction between these and traditional personal trainer, wellness and diet accounts are fairly superficial and, I would argue, many of them seem to focus on a certain type of body image. I would argue that, based on this, there is still some level of disordered thinking occurring.

Lots of different types of accounts will post ‘comparison photos’ – i.e. photos of themselves at their lowest body weight or lowest point of eating disorder in opposition to their body in ‘recovery’. On an emotional level, I think this feels like a way of validating oneself as having truly been sick and now being ‘recovered’ and seeing a visual improvement. It’s a way of marking progress or seeing how far you’ve come, sure, but also a way of feeling that you really were ‘sick enough’. These images aren’t met without significant backlash from others – the critique being that this isn’t particularly helpful for those considering recovery to see, as they may compare this with their own situation and feel they need to reach a ‘lower point’ or lose more weight in order to recover. I would generally agree that it doesn’t seem to hold a particular value for other people, although it might well hold value for the person themselves (again, to see their own progress). I think this comes down to whether or not the persons account is particularly public and whether they posit these posts as being something to help others or not.

Yet I can’t truly envisage a way to create content that doesn’t provoke a comparative and competitive reaction in other people with eating disorders. It seems part and parcel of the disorders, particularly anorexia. So what does this mean for online peer support for those in recovery?

Of course, there are spaces curated by organisations such as BEAT, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, that are there for peer to peer support as well as including moderators and some professionals. My experience with this is limited but from what I can tell the moderation is very heavy in these spaces – each instant message I sent had to wait for approval, for example, so the conversations were very stilted and slow. It’s understandable that there would be a need to moderate these forums, of course, because it’s highly likely people will post ‘triggering’ content when they’re not in a good place. However, I think this makes it quite difficult to receive empathic support that isn’t just platitudes.

These curated spaces also tend to have quite a specific view of recovery; that it should always be supervised by professionals, that the best way to go is always to report to a GP or eating disorder service. They do acknowledge that the wait lists are very long and it seems that their aim is to provide ‘interim’ support but always with the end goal of handing over to NHS services. Deference to professionals is also present in other recovery spaces but less common in Instagram, journal style spaces since people with eating disorders themselves tend to recognise the flaws more readily. Often there is venting about these services, the lack of support available from them and their approaches as that of risk management rather than genuine empathy.

This is another factor that can play into one’s view of recovery. Those with an ‘all in’ recovery approach that tends to correlate with a view that full recovery is possible ironically also tend to have some experience with eating disorder units and have found them unhelpful. This explains the self-help style they tend towards, since they’ve found reliance on professionals doesn’t achieve their ends. Perhaps, then, there is a defiance in the approach at times. If you have been told that your recovery isn’t possible or blamed for your lack of progress whilst in formal treatment then it makes sense to want to try something different.

In terms of the more pessimistic narratives some people do things like listing their number of hospital admissions on their Instagram bio like a badge of pride, post photographs of themselves being tube fed due to severe malnourishment and of themselves at severely low body weights. This seems to be a way of sharing the emotional trauma they have experienced or are experiencing and trying to share that with others who might be in the same position – or at least seem to care about what they’re experiencing. But there’s also a darker, more disordered thought process to it; one that wants to feel validated in terms of the relative severity of their experience. One that likes to compare and compete with others who have a similar disorder. This is obviously most common in anorexia – a sort of race to the bottom from very unwell people.

These types of accounts are not explicitly pro-recovery but nonetheless appear in those communities. Often there is an ambivalence towards recovery but a tacit acknowledgement that others, at least, should be pursuing it. Adjacent to this are the ‘meme accounts’ which produce ‘relatable content’ about eating disorders, experiences of those with eating disorders and sometimes also the experience of recovering from an eating disorder. These accounts, too, portray a type of ambivalence towards recovery and even write in their bio a disclaimer: ‘not pro’. What they mean by that is that they are not explicitly pro-eating disorders, pro-anorexia etc. This disambiguation is necessary because, of course, there are accounts that are sharing what is termed ‘pro eating disorder’ or ‘pro ana (anorexia)’, ‘pro mia (bulimia)’ etc content.

Some of this content is blocked, deleted or otherwise moderated by the social media it is posted to but not all. There are always dark places on the internet, places where people can post their most private, disordered thoughts and feel they will be accepted. I would posit ‘pro ED’ accounts, posts and communities as part of this phenomenon. I mostly write about it here to acknowledge its existence in opposition to but also in strange adjacency to ED recovery spaces. There appears this fine line between the dark thrill of wanting to share experiences and that of wanting to revel in them.

There is a very human tendency to seek out those with similar experiences to you, especially when those around you may want to help but not have a good understanding of how to do that. The internet and social media has given people a means to do this more easily and, of course, the consequences are rather mixed. I don’t think this is unique to eating disorders by any stretch but it does create a complex set of situations and tools which I don’t think you can reasonably discount as both a help and a hindrance at the same time. I would certainly describe my own experiences as very mixed in this regard and I couldn’t really give advice for certain on how to manage this. Mostly, I am just fascinated by how it transpires.

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