By: Brianna Mullins
Let’s Be Real: Social Media, Eating Disorders, and Recovery
We live in a world consumed by social media and comparing our real-life selves to the filtered images and videos that flood our instagram feeds. More often than not, the content we are exposed to on social media is only a small, sometimes staged, snippet of each person’s life. Unfortunately, this creates a false expectation of what reality is, or should be, and can contribute to the development and/or maintenance of eating disorders. That being said, social media can also play a role in recovery through the many positive communities within it. For me, social media has played a role in both.
Understanding the relationship between social media and eating disorders in important for everyone — eating disorder or not. Social media does not cause eating disorders, but it can act as a maintaining factor. Knowing the different communities in the world of social media can help lead you to the positive circles. Understanding the relationship between social media and eating disorders can also help us understand how we can change this relationship.
Does Social Media Cause Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders have been around and recognized for over 100 years, so to say social media is a major contributor to the development of clinically significant eating disorders is not exactly correct. Social media, however, definitely plays a role in how we see ourselves and others, and how we treat ourselves.
For instance, they undoubtedly have profound effects on mental health in general. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, research has consistently showing that social media is clearly a contributor to the pressures that lead to body dissatisfaction and disordered eating. Since children and adolescents’ brains are still developing, when they are seeing these images alluding to how we are supposed to look and live our lives, and articles about dieting on a daily — if not hourly — basis, it is safe to assume that their development of thinking is influenced by social media.
Being a millennial, I am a part of the first generation to grow up with social media. I have had an account, at some point, on many internet communities, from Xanga, to MySpace, to Facebook, and all of the current social media platforms there are today. As I have grown, I have become more and more active on social media. My mom finally let me join Facebook when I turned 14, and when I was 15-years-old, I created my first account on Tumblr. By the time I turned 18, I had a Facebook account, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat account. To this day, I am still active on four of these social media platforms. Because so much of my adolescence was spent surfing the web, I absolutely agree that the way I think about myself, and the way those around me view themselves and each other, has been influenced — if not shaped — by social media. However, would I say that social media is the cause of my eating disorder? Absolutely not.
Pro-Ana and Fitspo
Researchers Anna M. Bardone-Cone, PhD and Kamila M. Cass, MA, of the University of Missouri, Columbia, conducted a study of 235 female undergraduate students to examine the effects of exposure to pro-anorexia content. There were three different groups of viewers – a group viewing pro-anorexia content, a group viewing content on women’s bodies, and a group viewing content on home decor. After only one 25-minute viewing of this content, the group that was exposed to the pro-anorexia content showed profound negative effects, such as a greater negative affect, lower social self-esteem, and lower appearance self-efficacy, than the women in the other two groups. The fact that these are the results after ONE viewing is extremely important to note, and suggests that consistent exposure to this type of content can significantly impact the affect, self-esteem levels, and self-efficacy of a person.
For me, Tumblr was the absolute worst enabler. It drew me in because it felt like a “safe space” for me to express how I was feeling. I was VERY much involved in and drawn to pro-ana and “thinspiration” accounts. They made me feel like what I was doing was okay and that nothing could stop me. The accounts I followed served as inspiration – per se – to get sicker, and at some point after I began treatment, they served as validation to my eating disorder that I wasn’t sick enough to need treatment. Thinspiration and pro-ana websites/tumblr accounts were very much influential in my eating disorder. I am confident in saying that they did not cause the development of my anorexia, but they definitely contributed to the maintenance of it.
Similar to “thinspirtation” is “fitsporation.” Fitsporation, or fitspo, is a growing community in the realm of social media. Fitspo includes pages and accounts featuring men and women who are considered to have the “ideal,” fit body image, accompanied by messages that are portrayed as motivation to “get off the couch” and work out. Fitsporation sometimes disguises itself as motivational and positive, and in some cases it is actually equally as harmful as thinspiration and pro-anorexia accounts. There are even studies reporting that these fitsporation communities can trigger and worsen eating disorder symptoms.
Different from all of the fitspo accounts that essentially share the same ideals as thinsporation, a few fitness centered accounts out there show instead the truth behind their photos. Aubernutter and Fitnika are two incredible women who have both battled eating disorders and share their stories about recovery and fitness through social media.
Filtering Through Idealism and Reality
Realistically, very few people post any type of picture on social media without adding at least one filter and without meticulously writing up a clever caption to go along with it. Social media is flooded with snippets of the most perfect moments in people’s lives. No one – or at least a very small minority – posts anything on social media that shows the less perfect moments of life.
A recent story of one internet sensation’s experience with social media serves as an example of how this tendency to filter our lives on social media can absolutely destroy how we see and care for ourselves. Essena O’Neill, a 20 year old model from Sunshine Coast, Queensland, quit social media in 2015. She stated that she did not approve of the “dishonest and contrived” beauty standards that even she had participated in. Before deleting her Instagram account, Essena deleted over 2000 photos and changed the captions on her remaining photos to be more truthful about the reality behind each one. She wanted to show the world how her seemingly effortless, perfectly portrayed life was actually very staged, and that she spent hours taking hundreds of pictures until she got the “perfect” one – or least the one she felt the least bad about. Her edited captions revealed how she had been paid to post this picture, how much makeup she had been wearing in that picture, and how she would skip meals and restrict her caloric intake in order to maintain her “perfect” body even though she was promoting living a healthy and active lifestyle. Essena has since deleted her instagram account entirely.
Changing The Face of Social Media
Although there is a significant presence of negativity among social media communities, there are also several accounts that promote body positivity, recovery motivation, and self love. These accounts are both personal and organizational accounts. Two social media accounts that have taken the world by a body positive storm are Aerie and Iskra Lawrence. Social media pages, such as these two, that promote body positivity, self-love, love for others, and positivity in general, all have had a profound impact on me and my recovery.
There are also several individuals who use social media accounts to promote recovery from eating disorders by publicizing their own struggles and victories throughout their recovery. Accounts like these have inspired me to publicize my own recovery.
Publicizing my recovery through social media is a way to hold myself accountable. Saying to the world that I am doing okay motivates me to continue to do okay, and admitting to the world that I’m struggling motivates me to work harder towards recovery. The absolute most incredible thing, to me, about publicizing my recovery is all of the positive feedback I get from people. Sometimes it’s just someone commenting an emoji on my post, and sometimes it’s a direct message about how I have inspired someone.
Yes, social media absolutely has negative effects on everyone, but social media is most definitely not all bad. There ARE positive accounts out there, and it is easy to actively seek out these accounts and flood your feed with positivity and love. I also invite you all to personally contribute positivity and a sense of realness to the social media community. In my own experience, I have found that being real in all aspects of life (especially on social media) gives me a greater feeling of happiness and more room to candidly enjoy life.