Healthy Living

How Instagram Encouraged My Eating Disorder

My average day consisted of scrolling, liking and not eating.

When vegan blogger Jordan Younger announced that she was giving up her vegan lifestyle, she not only lost Instagram followers but also received death threats. The famous food blogger had thousands of devoted kale-eating followers who were unaware that she had a dangerous eating disorder, which she masked in veganism. In Younger’s case, Instagram had served as a façade, enabling her to pass off disordered eating as a healthy lifestyle. As she explained to the New York Post, “The obsession with my diet took up my every waking hour. It was stopping me from leading a normal life full of social activities and other interests.”

Social media generally, and Instagram specifically, have created a breeding ground for disordered eating.

I understood her words. I, too, fought an eating disorder for six years. And while I am not a famous blogger, I have felt Instagram’s overwhelming effect on my diet and disease. In promoting “healthy living,” food and fitness bloggers often inadvertently encourage their own — and others’ — eating disorders.

Social media generally, and Instagram specifically, have created a breeding ground for disordered eating. Many popular hashtags, including #gains, #eatclean, and #fitgirls, offer a distorted perspective on normal body image and eating habits.

“Social media generally, and Instagram specifically, have created a breeding ground for disordered eating.”

True, “pro-anorexia” tags and pages have been known for years to outwardly promote eating-disordered lifestyles. But in my opinion, the more subtle and deceiving “fitness” tags can be even more dangerous. These tags trick followers into believing that they are being healthy by exercising and eating “clean.” While these tags do sometimes depict actual healthful eating, those followers who are prone to obsessive tendencies, struggling with an eating disorder, or overly concerned about their body can take Instagram fitness advice to the extreme, working out compulsively or restricting their diets to the point of danger.

Instagram images are often staged in ways that create skewed perceptions. Instagrammers spend time making their food look as fresh, clean, and appealing as possible, and editing the photographs so that they no longer reflect reality. (For example, see the Daily Mail article “12 Tricks That Will Help You Take Beautiful Food Photos on Instagram.”)

What we see on social media cannot be trusted — it is being shown to us through a physical and creative lens that has been edited, altered, and staged.

Moreover, certain photographic sleights-of-hand are used to distort one’s body, making a thigh gap, bones, or muscles more apparent. Essena O’Neill, an Instagram-famous Australian model who recently quit social media, published an account of the deceptive tactics of her previous posts. Explicating a bikini picture, she wrote, “Stomach sucked in, strategic pose, pushed up boobs. I just want younger girls to know this isn’t candid life, or cool or inspiration. It’s contrived perfection made to get attention.”

We often forget that what we see on social media cannot be trusted — that it is being shown to us through a physical and creative lens that has been edited, altered and staged.

Social media asks us to sell the best version of ourselves. Through our profiles, we turn ourselves into products, displaying only the most appealing bits of our lives and bodies. We no longer just compare ourselves with celebrities in traditional media — we compare ourselves to one another and to those who have become social-media famous. This represents a new and radical change in the way we view and judge our peers.

“Through our profiles, we turn ourselves into products, displaying only the most appealing bits of our lives and bodies.”

I spent hours scrolling through images of naked too-thin bodies, perfectly prepared plates, and images of inspiration to be “healthier.” What I didn’t realize was that every “healthy” image led me further down the path to self-destruction.

Just one year ago, my average day consisted of scrolling, liking and not eating. I was in the deepest valley of my eating disorder. I was vegan, orthorexic (meaning that I compulsively obsessed over what I ate), and anorexic. I was at the lowest weight of my life and well on my way to malnourishment. But that’s not what Instagram told me.

For most of my young adult life, I tied my identity to the food I consumed. That identity almost killed me. I had struggled with my eating disorder for years, and the peak of my sickness coincided with the peak of my social-media obsession. Before I put anything in my mouth (which was not very often), I reached for my phone to snap a picture. I spent hours scrolling through images of naked too-thin bodies, perfectly prepared plates, and images of inspiration to be “healthier.” I wanted to be something else — to become what I saw on my phone’s small, unforgiving screen. What I didn’t realize was that every “healthy” image that I consumed led me further down the path to self-destruction.

“I had struggled with my eating disorder for years, and the peak of my sickness coincided with the peak of my social-media obsession.”

I am not claiming that vegan or health-inspired posts are inherently negative. Only that these types of posts have the possibility to be dangerous to both the producer and the consumer. I have personally suffered because of Instagram’s distortions, and I have watched my friends struggle too.

If you type “eating disorder” and “Instagram” into your Google search bar, the first result will be the Instagram Help Center, which provides a warning about the presence of those with eating disorders on the app, plus a list of signs, tips, and resources. While it is comforting to know that Instagram is aware of its influence on people struggling with disordered eating, it feels like too little, too late. Many people, myself included, did not even realize that Instagram was encouraging our disordered eating until it was too late.

But there’s a light at the end of this dark tunnel. Influencers like @nourishandeat have been reclaiming body positivity on Instagram, promoting hashtags like #embracethesquish (a reference to a healthy belly “squish”). Social media can be an incredible recovery tool or a dangerous weapon against our well-being. At the end of the day, the power is in our hands. Instagram cannot survive without our consumption, and neither can accounts that promote disordered eating.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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