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. In our monthly series Body Talk, we hope to bring these disorders into the light in a way that’s truly inclusive, honest, and beneficial to recovery.
By Jessica Schiffer
America runs on diet culture. Every day, we’re bombarded with new diet advertisements, food shame-y suggestions, over-exercise promotions, and influencers trumpeting their latest cleanse, a combination that makes even the most secure-in-their-skin people regularly question the way they eat, move their bodies, and look in the mirror. For those in recovery from an eating disorder, it’s an especially taxing reality that can counteract whatever progress they’ve made in shifting their relationship with food and exercise to be healthier (in the true, non-restrictive sense) and less extreme.
“Our culture has a disordered way of thinking about food,” says Christine Byrne, a journalist and dietician who works with people recovering from eating disorders and disordered eating. “If you're recovering from an eating disorder, then even the slightly-disordered things that are normalized today can really derail your recovery.”
While people often point to the body positivity movement as proof that things have gotten better in our culture, in many ways they’ve actually gotten worse, thanks to the rise of social media and a convoluted version of wellness.
In the past, diet trends were more overly restrictive (see: the grapefruit diet trend of the 1970s). Today, diet trends are sneakier and less explicit, shrouded in supposedly health-driven concepts like clean eating, veganism, and raw food. “These trends are easier to mask and less easily caught by the diagnostic criteria,” says Byrne. “There's this sense of wellness and virtue surrounding them, with companies claiming they’re ‘not about losing weight,’ even though they are.” Our collective interest in exercise has also increased in step with the wellness movement, as brands like Equinox, SoulCycle and Peloton have helped to foster the idea that working out 7 days a week is a healthy point of pride.
Wellness and fitness influencers promoting all of these trends on social media have only compounded the problem. “We are constantly being bombarded with a single type of body or people promoting this idea of ‘wellness’ that’s ready disordered eating – people sharing what they eat in a day or how much they’ve exercised,” says Carolyn Comas, LCSW, who works with Eating Disorder Therapy LA. “It can make people who aren’t doing that or don’t look like that feel bad and like they’re doing something wrong. There's just an overabundance of this information, and a lot of it is not helpful or misinformation.”
For Jordanna Drazin, a 23-year-old living in Manhattan, it was conversation around “the Freshman 15” and the popularity of the problematic F Factor Diet while she was in college that really challenged her recovery from the restrict-and-binge cycle of her eating disorder. “My sophomore year, when I was more aware of my own eating disorder and [trying to get better], I found all the talk of F Factor – everyone trying to be low carb and lose the Freshman 15 – to be extremely triggering,” she says. It wasn’t until that following summer, when she got away from the diet culture at school, that she was able to make headway in her recovery, but there were bumps along the way, including an obsession with clean, so-called “healthy” food that has become a common issue in eating disorder recovery in the wake of the wellness trend.
“Social media has allowed these ‘healthy diets’ that aren't really healthy to be promoted more and everyone's posting what they eat in a day and all of this stuff that can be super triggering, so, not only are you comparing how you look physically, but you feel shame if you ate a burger and someone else is eating raw carrots and hummus,” says Drazin.
Given all of this, it can be difficult to envision a path to recovery in today’s world. While transforming the disordered foundations of our culture will require decades of work, experts say there are steps people with eating disorders can take to protect themselves from a stream of constant triggers.
For starters, evaluate who you’re surrounding yourself with and set boundaries where needed. If you have a family member who’s constantly talking about their weight or their extreme exercise routine, ask them politely to avoid those topics around you. If they refuse to do that, you can set boundaries that will help limit your exposure to them while you’re in the thick of recovery. “You do not have to talk to people about dieting and engage in those conversations,” says Comas. “You're allowed to say, ‘this is not good for me,’ or walk away from it.”
Finding a community of people who do have a healthy relationship with food can be really helpful as well, says Byrne: “Sometimes you can't get that in person, so you have to go online to find a recovery group that is well supervised by a therapist.” That supervision is key to avoiding the toxic, still-disordered thinking that is common on social media.
While there are some truly helpful eating disorder specialists on social media, there are risks to following someone else’s recovery journey online, where people claiming to be recovered may actually still be struggling. Even in the best cases, where someone is truly recovered, “it is not going to look the same as your successful recovery,” says Byrne. “You likely will be triggered or, at best, you'll just get nothing out of it.” Unfollow or mute accounts that leave you feeling worse about yourself, or give you the itch to backtrack on any strides you’ve made in your recovery.
More than anything, it’s important to question the messages being sold to you, whether from a brand, an influencer, or someone you know. Just because a certain lifestyle choice has been deemed “good” or “better” or “healthy,” doesn’t mean it really is. “Diet culture seeps into everything,” says Comas. “I let all of my patients know that they are allowed to question and push back – you don't have to accept what is, and that can be really powerful.”
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