The impact of social media on eating disorders

In our latest Research Reflections blog, Bethany Finch, who is a Young Mental Health Ambassador and Research Ambassador, draws on her own experiences to explore the impact of social media on eating disorders, and the changing ways that people can use it to access support.

Trigger warning: This blog includes discussion of eating disorders and social media content that encourages weight loss.

Anorexia Nervosa, or simply Anorexia, is a type of eating disorder stigmatised around maintaining an unsustainably thin physique by enterprising gruelling tasks such as undereating and overexercising. The link I have provided here is from the official NHS website depicting an overview of the medical term of Anorexia, either for further understanding or a general overview of medical terms.

As an anorexia sufferer whose symptoms and diagnosis began at the young age of 14, I’ve come to view my anorexia differently throughout the years as the stereotypes or representations of eating disorders have changed. At the beginning, I never really understood what was taking place in my mind, only that I knew I wanted to look a certain way and didn’t know when to stop. This therefore landed me in hospital with an underweight body, extremely low blood pressure and low heart rate, as well as anaemia, depression, anxiety… honestly, I could go on and on, but that’s not the point. The point I am trying to make is how eating disorders are represented through media and especially social media.

I have written about my eating disorders a couple times. My most recent article was for an endearing and communal women’s health page called Heroica, which covers various topics from domestic abuse to bankruptcy and everything in between. In my article, which you can read here, I covered social media’s input when it comes to eating disorders, and how one post encouraged me to write that particular piece. This post was encouraging because it covered an aspect of anorexia that I had also experienced. I found it relieving that I was not the only one to go through it. My own experience therefore highlights the importance of helpful and supporting social media coverage regarding eating disorders and other mental health issues in general.

My delve into seeking support for my eating disorder online began when I was simply scrolling through Instagram one day; I wasn’t looking for anything in specific, just general scrolling for entertainment. I came across an Instagram post of an extremely thin woman showcasing her figure. The caption on her post was “I am so close to my goal weight! I’m so proud of myself”. Initially, in my mind, I thought she was trying to gain weight and was originally thinner than she already was. However, as I kept reading the caption, I saw she also said “only 7lbs to go!”. This shocked me as the girl was already so concerningly thin and she was aiming to lose more weight; glorifying it on a social media platform with countless other people of all ages to see.

I try to see from all points of view other than my own, as everyone’s mind is different. I take into account that not everybody has an eating disorder and does not think the same way that I do regarding food, exercise, weight and one’s perception of their own body. However, I can only imagine that it discouraged some people on their own body image, as it affected mine. I would have liked to think that people in the comments would encourage this girl that she does not need to lose any further weight and advise that it may be detrimental to her health if she continues to lose more weight, if it hasn’t already taken its toll. On the contrary, the comment section was full to the brim of people (majority young girls) comparing themselves to this girl, posting comments about how they wish they looked like her; even going on to ask how she got this thin and querying any recommendations to achieve her figure. This was disheartening in many ways, as not only was the girl in the post seeking validation for her unsustainable physique but was influencing others to do the same.

In the past few years, however, the awareness of eating disorders, including their symptoms, causes and influences, have been spread around multiple platforms from social media to counselling and rehabilitation. It has been made clearer to people globally the detrimental effects and causes of different types of eating disorders. This is also demonstrated by the increase of supportive mental health platforms across social media. I took it upon myself to return to Instagram to investigate what kind of representation is portrayed when I searched ‘eating disorders’ in the search bar. I wanted to see if it now provided more encouragement for growth for people with eating disorders rather than having a detrimental impact.

This image shows the accounts that came up on Instagram when I searched ‘eating disorder’.

This image shows the support menu that came up once I’d made the search.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before I could continue to peruse the recommended accounts of this topic, an option for support was provided, which I had never seen before. I thought this was extremely innovative to the movement of supporting those with eating disorders. Although I intended not to find any harmful material to make myself feel worse, it even made me think twice. I feel this could have a positive impact on those looking for ‘body goals’, or posts that may trigger body dysmorphia in someone. It might encourage them to reach out for help as they have been ‘caught out’ in a sense that their search material may be damaging to their mental health. However, despite this reach for help for those who may be struggling, the accounts that appeared from that search were all supporting accounts; ones that offer advice, guidance; even people who are going through it themselves and document their recovery in hopes of helping themselves and others along the way.

To further support this, I was shown an article written by a woman called Elizabeth de Luna for Dazed magazine. The article, which you can read here, covered the rise of influencers with eating disorders who use their platform to promote health, growth and recovery by sharing their experiences and recovery process on camera. This can be really helpful, not just to the viewers, but also to themselves. In this article, Elizabeth also stresses the ‘toxic’ side of social media for young people with mental health disorders. She highlights how others posting body comparison photos and ‘what I eat in a day’ videos can be damaging to those struggling, as it can influence them in the wrong ways. She also goes on to say that ‘vulnerable’ people will use these platforms to find other likeminded individuals to form ‘anorexia buddies’, to which they both track and compare their diets and bodies in a toxic ‘friendship’ of constant comparison.

This kind of media supports my case of how social media can influence and onset an unhealthy mindset in some and cause them to form unhealthy habits. In the same mind, it can also be used to influence for the better and encourage those struggling to seek help and guidance, or to even follow in these influencers footsteps and challenge themselves for the better. Be cautious of what you see online, but also open your mind to different forms of help.

Bethany Finch, Research Ambassador

Sources:

Bethany Finch, ‘Accepting Your Illness: How Understanding Your Eating Disorder Aids’, Heroica (https://www.heroica.co/wellness/accepting-your-illness-how-understanding-your-eating-disorder-aids-healing)

Bethany Finch, ‘Mood Swings, Hormone Imbalances and Dangerous Dieting: My Eating Disorder Journey’, Heroica (https://www.heroica.co/wellness/mood-swings-hormone-imbalances-and-dangerous-dieting-my-eating-disorder-journey)

Heroica (https://www.heroica.co/homepage)

Elizabeth de Luna, ‘The rise of the eating disorder recovery influence’, Dazed Digital (https://www.dazeddigital.com/life-culture/article/45140/1/the-rise-of-the-post-eating-disorder-recovery-influencer-instagram-youtube)

NHS, ‘Overview – Anorexia Nervosa’ (https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/anorexia/overview/)