Courtney Grover thought Instagram would be the answer to finding a support network after recovering from an eating disorder, until she realised it was just feeding into new obsessive behaviour.
Social media has brought us closer than ever before to the wider world around us. Instagram in particular has become home to a number of unique communities, where people from all over the world can connect through shared interests and form genuine friendships.
Gym-goers have united over a passion for health and fitness. Foodies have joined arms over a mutual appreciation for delicious dinners. Body-positive advocates have created a space for sharing real selfies to remind us what real bodies look like.
Instagram is also home to a very unique community filled with people offering support to other sufferers along their journey to recovery: the ED community. Under hashtags such as #strongnotskinny and #recoverywarrior, you’ll find personal posts from people rehabilitating their relationship with food. Amongst them you’ll see pics of properly portioned meals, honest selfies and the classic 2-second transformation pics posted so we can see that bloating is normal and not a sure-fire sign you’re gaining weight.
On the whole, the ED community is great: it has positive intentions and can offer a supportive network of fellow sufferers. But social media cannot always serve as a sufficient source of therapy as I learnt through my experiences as an #EDwarrior.
I was 20 when I finally decided to re-evaluate my relationship with food. After 8 years caning my body – eat, binge, purge, repeat – I’d reached breaking point, facing a tough decision of either a lifetime of misery and anxiety or a comparatively short (but incredibly difficult) journey to recovery. I decided the latter was the best option.
I had an air of optimism towards my new bulimia-free life, but I had no idea how to get there. A future of healthy eating, finding a home rather than an enemy in my own body, seemed just beyond my fingertips – I could almost touch it, but I didn’t know how to close off those final few inches.
I mean, I knew in theory how to recover. It’s simple: stop the binging to stop the purging and eat intuitively instead. But like giving up any addiction – mine being food – this was much easier said than done. After all, I’d spent almost a decade stretching my stomach to its limits. I could easily gorge on an entire XXL pizza, two sides and a 2 litre bottle of coke and still have room for dessert, so the idea of eating intuitively was completely alien to me. It was something I had beaten out of myself, and now had to re-learn.
Nevertheless, armed with an optimism I hadn’t had in years and a genuine desire to recover, I committed to the cause and took the millennial approach to self-help: social media.
I created a new Instagram account, following anyone whose bio contained ‘ed-survivor’, ‘body positive’ or ‘recovering’. I’d post transformation pics comparing selfies at my lowest against current photos in the hope of inspiring others. (It’s only now I realise that while my body looked physically healthier in the recent photos, my mental state was broken in both). Each day I’d upload photos of my food on the quest for followers to ultimately build a substantive support network. I felt liberated, like I was finally helping others and hopefully healing myself in the process.
Within a few months, my relationship with food had indeed changed; but not in the way I’d hoped. I became extremely obsessive with the aesthetics of food. Each meal had to be perfectly choreographed; the more attractive (and often healthier) the food, the better it felt and subsequently, the more followers I gained. At one point, I even went vegan in a bid to live my best life for the ‘gram. Each meal I had was a question of what looked best, not what I wanted.
It wasn’t until my boyfriend started mocking me for religiously photographing of my food that I started questioning how healthy this new habit really was. Was my pretty account filled with luscious salads and smoothie bowls making anyone’s life better? Was it actually helping me beat bulimia? No.
During this time, I’d been using Instagram as a way of controlling food. By keeping a regimented record of what I was eating online, I felt like I was in charge, no longer powerless to the pleasures of food. I wasn’t eating intuitively: I was eating what I thought my followers wanted to see. I became so fixated on food I’d constantly compare the quantity and quality of my meals with everyone else, competing in a dangerous game of ‘who’s the best at recovery’. Ultimately, I’d supplemented one addiction for another under the guise of recovery.
Once I realised I’d been abusing Instagram as a means of control, I knew I had to tackle recovery offline. I deactivated my account and left the ED community behind, looking to friends and family for support in my journey towards a healthier future.
While Instagram is home to an amazing supportive network of people helping one another through their recovery, it wasn’t the therapy I needed. Defenders of social media often retort that it can open up a world previously impossible to access; it can connect, and build communities. This is all true, and the friendships and stories forged through the new technological era are not to be sneered at, but they also don’t replace reality. Social media is already so well known to harbor addictive, damaging side effects; perhaps it is not the safest place for people in recovery to search for help. I needed to tackle the psychological issues underpinning my bulimia. In time I could return, but for now I had to find an alternate method of recovery.
Having left Instagram behind, I focused on my health and nutrition, not aesthetics. I prioritised my mental wellbeing as opposed to my social media. I sought help from friends and family and began talking openly about my troubles with food as a form of therapy. Being open and honest with others, helped me do the same with myself. It helped me realise that food didn’t have to control me; that my mood shouldn’t and didn’t have to be dependent on my weight. I was more than diet. I was a strong person who’d been suffering but was ready to move on; and you can be too!
If you’re reading this and suffering from any kind of disordered eating, I want you to know that recovery is possible but it’s a journey not a destination. Everyone’s journey is different and the way in which you develop a healthy relationship with food different to somebody else. Recovery is wholly personal and it’s about understanding your disorder and what works best for you. If you find success through social media, then great! Own it. If you don’t, that’s okay too. Just be open and honest with yourself and find the solution that suits you.
Words by Courtney Grover