By: Kristen Pizzo, Project HEAL San Jose
Kristen Pizzo. 11 y/o. In outpatient recovery for Anorexia. *secret account*. Diagnosed August 2009
This very well may have been the description on my Instagram account back when I first began my recovery from anorexia nervosa. However, the popular photo-sharing app was not developed until October of 2010, and I did not hear of it until a year or two later. I never would have guessed social media would have such an impact on the once-hidden world of eating disorders.
Since starting an account for the Project HEAL San Jose, I have discovered an entire community of accounts like these. Thousands of men and women from around the world, from preteens to young adults, use these “recovery” accounts as platforms to document their journey through recovery from their eating disorders. Daily posts consist mainly of meals and snacks, but also include selfies, inspiring quotes, food giveaways, shout-outs to other recovery accounts, challenges, and, unfortunately, suicidal messages. In short: a day in the life of someone recovering from an eating disorder, but with a pep squad on the sidelines cheering them on.
Comment sections have become virtual support groups, and terms like “fear food” are now popular hashtags. Accounts dubbed “pro-recovery” or “not pro-ana” let you know the user won’t be posting triggering thinspo. However, the accounts also document the setbacks of recovery, and so the occasional triggering post is clearly labeled “TW” for “trigger warning”. Each aspect of the struggles a person faces each day is on display - from grief over weight gain and struggling to eat foods that aren’t “safe,” to the regret after eating and the voices of the eating disorder in their head.
During my four-year struggle with anorexia nervosa, I could only relate to the patients I met during my ten-day stay at the hospital. Back home, I had no one to talk to that could possibly understand the war that raged within me. My inner battles were only noticed when they led to more blatant signs of struggle, such as breakdowns and outbursts. When I looked in the mirror and cursed my reflection, I couldn’t take a selfie, upload it to the Internet, and have others tell me to stay strong and keep fighting. The only person suggesting foods for me to try that would help with weight gain was my dietitian. The only people who saw what I ate were my confused, ignorant friends. I was a soldier fighting my battle in isolation, long before “ED soldier” was a hashtag.
Some believe social media has had a purely negative effect on eating disorders; as it has spread “thinspo,” such as the thigh gap obsession and the latest “bikini bridge” fad. Instagram is still filled with “pro-ana” accounts, owned by individuals who have decided to try living the eating disorder “lifestyle”. They are oblivious to the fact that eating disorders are not lifestyles, but serious mental illnesses. These users treat the disorders as trends, an attitude that many believe could spark a spike in the number of those suffering from eating disorders. However, the “pro-recovery” accounts, for the most part, seem to provide a safe place for individuals to give and receive support from their peers, the kind of community I would have given anything to be a part of. The diversity of the online community makes it open and welcoming: users suffer from all types of eating disorders, from anorexia and bulimia to binge-eating and EDNOS, and are of all sexualities and ethnic backgrounds.
To get first-hand insight into whether having an account helps or hinders one’s recovery, I was fortunate enough to have Instagram-interviews with a few individuals who use recovery accounts. A 15 year-old user, who goes by the username “fyourfitspo”, said he started his recovery account because he “wanted to meet new people to talk to and I was hoping that maybe I’d be able to help somebody with recovery”. He also said he is often triggered by others’ accounts “…especially [when they say] ‘This [meal] was soo big! I ate like half and I was so full!’” However, he adds, “But I’m like, ‘Well I could have eaten that all in like five minutes’”.
The second user I interviewed, who goes by the name “recoveringdaisyprincess”, said she believes having an account is helpful “…because sometimes you just need someone to remind you that you are worth recovery, and everyone on here usually understands when you relapse and stuff. People also give really inspirational advice”. When asked if she thinks recovery would be different if she didn’t have a place to express herself and connect with others who are struggling, she said, “…I definitely feel like it would be a lot different if I didn’t have this account as I feel like I can post honestly on here and receive support and also give support to others.” Her experiences mirror those of many users in the eating disorder recovery community, as she underscores, “I would have struggled a lot more without having contact with the wonderful people I have met on here”.