The Instagram Recovery Community

I've spoken a lot on my blog about my personal experience with an eating disorder and most recently I touched upon eating disorder recovery itself, but I've never really spoken about something that was an integral part of my life for almost a year - the Instagram recovery community. I decided to write this post after revisiting my recovery instagram (now private and unused) and seeing people I care about still trapped in negative cycles. If you're part of this community or know someone who is then this post might shed some light on how potentially dangerous it can be to recovery. If you're unfamiliar with the Instagram recovery community then let me explain what it is. [Trigger Warning: Eating Disorders & Behaviours] [Long Post Warning]
I distinctly remember stumbling across a girl's eating disorder recovery account (who I still follow now, but I'll leave her unnamed for this post) in January 2014 whilst browsing pictures of food on Instagram. I was struggling badly with my body image, sadly anticipating another relapse and reading the messages of support that the girl was receiving on photos of both her meals and her body progress seemed appealing. I hadn't let on to anybody that I was finding things hard again and thought that the help of people online would provide much needed support whilst letting me retain an element of anonymity. Subsequently, I created my own recovery account and ended up following around 200 people who also had eating disorders and/or various other mental health problems. My feed became instantly saturated with photos of food, often deliciously healthy and beautifully presented, with lengthy captions detailing how the person had felt before, during and after the meal. I liked that people seemed to discuss general day-to-day details about their life; it felt more intimate, more friendly and more relatable than the Instagram I had previously known. However, it wasn't until I took a turn for the worse in the summer of 2014 that I actually posted anything on my own account. Before that I was effectively a ghost account - 'liking' other people's pictures and leaving small comments where I thought appropriate but not really having my own identity past my username. I'd seen firsthand over a 5 month period how well the people I was following seemed to be doing and that's what I wanted for myself too! I needed so desperately to be succeeding with recovery as university loomed in the distance but I was so ensnared by anorexia's grasp that even the tiniest amounts seemed like a struggle. The girls I followed on my recovery account provided me with constant meal inspiration, made me realise that I wasn't alone in my anxieties regarding food and helped me connect with more people who truly understood how I felt. I felt for the first time like I was part of something, like I'd finally found somewhere that I belonged.

It wasn't until I'd been posting photos of my intake every day for around 2 months that I began to notice that something was very, very wrong with what I was doing. The toxicity that was seeping into my life through the media that I was viewing on a constant basis was really beginning to affect me. Instead of feeling positive about starting recovery, I started to feel guilty for posting photos of my meals that stood out as being different to what other people were posting. If someone was eating Quest bars for their afternoon snack and I was eating cereal bars I felt guilty. If I saw someone had eaten a smaller breakfast than me I immediately wanted to try and eat a smaller lunch than them. I began to feel ashamed for the food that I was eating rather than feeling good that I was taking steps towards a better life. It wasn't uncommon for me to spend over 45 minutes making a meal and trying to make it look as pretty as possible to take a photo of it before I even started to eat it, which was another 45 minute debacle in itself. Comments telling me how well I was doing started to trigger me rather than help me - the sick part of my brain didn't want to be "doing well" any more whilst watching so many people fall deeper into their illness. I felt like a failure for wanting to get better. I felt like my disorder was invalid if I wasn't struggling as much as other people were, despite being very unwell and in treatment at the time. My entire outlook on recovery had changed. I felt like the Instagram recovery community had become a competitive playground for people struggling with innately competitive mental illnesses.

I started to post less on my recovery account when I moved to university and noticed that a lot of the girls who I'd grown close to online also started to do the same. After all, it's not "normal behaviour" to photograph everything you're eating and I guess you want to look as "normal" as possible in the first few weeks of university. I was part of a group whatsapp conversation with 3 other girls who had anorexia and moved to university at the same time as I did and spoke individually to a lot of people on Twitter/Facebook who also had recovery accounts. Collectively, we began to notice that despite the sudden upheaval and rapid change in our lives, we were actually all starting to eat a bit better. The pressure of not having to create a perfect looking meal meant that I could grab a quick breakfast before uni without worrying about how many berries I was putting on top of my porridge (I like lots but lots doesn't photograph as well as 5 strategically placed raspberries). We'd all started to worry less about what each other was eating and more on what we were eating as individuals. I started to feel like I was more in control of my disorder again, rather than my disorder controlling me. Before moving to university I'd begun to subconsciously apply other people's triggers/fears to my own life. For example, I'd convinced myself that eating out was scary and A Big No, even though I'd always found going to restaurants to be a great experience, just because other people who I deemed to be "more ill" than me found it hard. I remember going our for a meal at Nando's with my flatmates without worrying that people following my recovery account would think I was "cured" for being absolutely fine with eating in public. In some ways, I think I didn't want to show that I was doing better because I was scared of losing the support that I'd been getting whilst underweight. It’s not until now that I’ve realised that genuine and helpful support can come in so many ways and that you don’t have to be struggling to be taken seriously by other sufferers, family/friends or good medical professionals. 

Despite the negatives of being part of such a large community, I'd become really close to some lovely people and found that being there to support one another was actually really empowering when we were all doing well. The excitement that I got whenever I saw one of my friends had eaten a fear food or successfully tackled a trigger wasn't rooted in competitiveness to be "the most ill", it was real, untainted happiness that they were starting to take back control of their own life. It gave me the courage to try to do the same and the support to overcome things I never thought I'd be able to do. Although the obsession with eating certain "recovery foods" (Danio yoghurts, Quest/Nakd bars, Skinny Popcorn, etc.) was damaging by being borderline obsessive and almost a popularity contest for who could eat the healthiest, it encouraged me to try new foods, something which I now believe to have been integral to my own recovery. People who had experienced or were experiencing the same feelings that I was really encouraged me to speak more openly with my therapist. They also taught me to articulate my feelings better to my family/friends who didn't quite understand what was going on in my head and genuinely became some of my closest online friends. We're all still friends, despite leaving the Instagram recovery community entirely, but our conversations seem more genuine now. We're all looking out for each other in the right ways now instead of accidentally making each other worse. 

Stepping away from any influences that you think might be having a negative impact upon you and your recovery, whether it be certain people or social media targeted at people with mental health problems, isn't the easiest thing to do. But it is the right thing to do. Instagram and other sites can be so helpful for connecting with people who have similar feelings to you and making you feel less alone, but it's important to stay grounded and focused upon your own recovery goals. It's all too easy to get lost in a sea of sadness and forget that your original intentions were probably to try to get better. Tracking your intake and your feelings can be beneficial during recovery, but the constant competition, unrealistic expectations set by large groups of unwell people and prolonged exposure to disordered thoughts can be really damaging.

I've been wanting to write this post for a while and believe that this is something really worth talking about! I’d love to hear your experiences or opinions in the comments, even if they differ to mine!

Love, Hails.

No comments