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Body Talk: The Harm of Eating Disorder Recovery Content    

Body Talk: The Harm of Eating Disorder Recovery Content

By Meadowlark Monaghan; with reporting from Jessica Schiffer

Eating disorders affect more than 9% of the world’s population and are considered the deadliest mental health disorder in the world, yet they are riddled with misinformation and shame and enforced by a culture that often prioritizes the superficial over true wellbeing. Today, we’re launching a monthly series called Body Talk to bring these disorders into the light in a way that’s truly inclusive, honest, and beneficial to recovery. 

I first saw an “Anorexia Recovery: 24 Hours Eating My Followers’ Fear Foods” video last December. As a mental health professional, who has a complicated identification with eating disorders personally (I think I had orthorexia in college but was never formally diagnosed), I was curious. My fellow mental health professional friends and I routinely debate the efficacy of virtual displays of recovery so I felt it was my duty to jump down the rabbit hole when my YouTube explore page suggested it.

At first, I was in awe of this young woman’s brave display of vulnerability. As a viewer, I felt like her virtual accountability buddy, watching a seemingly minimally-edited version of breaking unhealthy behaviors, challenging intrusive thoughts, and accepting support from her family. But a couple clicks away I found the antithesis of what I had just watched: a pseudo-recovered model who shared a detailed account of what she ate in a day, including a restrictive shopping list (#wholefoods #cleaneating) and limiting diet rules. 

“Eating disorder recovery content can be problematic for a variety of reasons,” says Emma Demar, a therapist who specializes in eating disorders. “First, not everyone who says they are in recovery is actually in recovery. Since eating disorders are a mental illness, it’s often the case that someone believes they are in recovery when in reality the eating disorder still has a strong grip on their lives, or they may be trying to present one way online when they are actually struggling.”

The sad truth is that this is what a lot of ED Recovery content online looks like: accounts preying on people’s disordered thinking and luring them into a false sense of support that leaves them feeling guilt and shame around their own habits or the way their recovery looks in comparison. It’s photos of overnight oats and sweet potato macro bowls and facetuned selfies of individuals whose unrealistic beauty standards only serve to fuel the competitive nature of EDs. As one savvy commenter summed it up, “recovery-spo is really just orthorexia.”

“The result is that someone may be looking at this content and thinking that that is what recovery ‘should’ look like without realizing the person they are watching is struggling themselves,” says Demar. “There is no one way to recover from an eating disorder, and if we look to others to match our recovery with theirs, we may be putting ourselves in harm's way because our needs may be different.”

Micaela Cunningham, a NAMI San Diego employee with expertise in eating disorders and youth behavioral health, agrees that this content often promotes harmful thought patterns: “Eating disorders thrive on competition, so when people post videos talking about the ‘ugly side’ of eating disorders, it can actually fuel someone’s disordered thoughts because there’s that feeling of ‘not sick enough,’ [by which they usually mean] not ‘thin enough.’”

Sometimes it’s shocking how much this content is promoted and celebrated. Many reputable publications have articles listing top influencers to follow for ED recovery and there are endless Reddit threads filled with supposedly recovered people who are simply disordered in a different way than they originally were. All of this perpetuates the growing phenomenon of pseudo-recovery, in which a person with an ED transitions from one form of restriction to another, a reality spurred on by the rise of restrictive health and wellness trends like raw food. 

“This other form of restriction might look like veganism, orthorexia, over-exercise or other related rigidity-disorders, and the reason for this is because the individual is not actually fully recovered, and they are still dealing with the underlying issues of control,” explains Demar. “There is so much content online about veganism and healthy eating that people with eating disorders are seeing and are susceptible to.”

These supposedly recovered diets continue to make moral judgments around certain types of food, adds Cunningham, noting that by labeling a food as “clean” the assumption by ED sufferers is that it’s safe, and that anything “unclean” is dangerous. “It’s extremely harmful to those in the midst of an eating disorder,” she says.

Given all this, what should people in recovery look out for when navigating content online? Earlier this year, we interviewed Johanna Kandel, founder of The Alliance for Eating Disorders, who shared some content red flags to steer clear of when in recovery:

  • Before and after photos
  • Anyone putting out content about their diet plan or rules for eating
  • Rigidity around food choices
  • Labeling food choices as “clean,” “safe,” OR “healthy” 
  • Obsessive rituals
  • Talk of specific numbers, medications, or weights
  • Body checks

“It’s important to also consider the overall message of the content you are taking in and whether the person you are watching is coming from a healthy place,” explains Demar. “If you aren’t sure whether they are or aren’t, pay attention to how you feel when you are taking in the content: Do you feel worse after watching it? Does it make you want to use any sort of restrictive or unhealthy behaviors?” If it does, the best choice for your recovery is to unfollow or mute the account.

None of this means the internet hasn’t offered something positive to those in recovery. For people living in information or resource deserts, for those without a support system in their day-to-day lives, and for the underrepresented, online communities can be beneficial. Some recovery accounts can give hope to people who didn’t have it before, and provide faith that full recovery from an eating disorder (one without shaming labels and diet limitations) is actually possible. Text-based accounts, that don’t include the triggering information listed above, are usually a better bet than those featuring photos of the person in recovery or their food.

However, similar to most forms of media today, finding online eating disorder support takes critical thinking. If the content you’re engaging with only leaves you feeling worse, or you find yourself backsliding in recovery, it’s best to turn to IRL support for help, whether it’s a therapist, an inpatient or outpatient recovery program, or a support group that meets regularly. When it comes to our mental health, sometimes logging off is the best thing we can do. 

Resources:

The Alliance for ED has online support groups for those experiencing an ED as well as their friends and family members. 

Call or text the National Eating Disorder Association for non-crisis support at (800) 931-2237  

Search for local treatment centers and practitioners in The Alliance’s database.

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414 and subscribing to our bi-monthly newsletter here.