To say I was shocked, dear bleaders, when recent media coverage of the Instagram ‘recovery community’ raved about its vair marveyness is a definite understatement wrapped in a vest.
For the – luckily – uninitiated, the self-titled ‘recovery community’ is a group of, mainly young, people living with anorexia who post photos of their diet (also known amongst the community as ‘intake’) for their anorexic followers to ‘like’ and comment upon. A 2015 article on Buzzfeed (please stick to making lists about cats and food) described the network as being a ‘conversation about recovery’, and the associated hashtags – #anorexiarecovery and #eatingdisorderrecovery to name a few – appear to tell the same story.
Personal experience, however, tells a different tale altogether. It was only when a hospital admission made me reflect upon how serious my anorexia had become that I started to think about the place that a ‘recovery account’ had in my life. I found that I was spending hour upon hour every day, and sometimes half the night as well, scrolling through pictures of other people’s food; reading about their failing health and looking at pictures of underwear hanging from severely emaciated frames. I had been stuck in a cycle of weight-loss and failed attempts at weight-gain for as long as I had been posting on the platform, and had noticed a descent from a small and supportive group of people actually concerned with their own recovery to a disparate and widespread community, some of whom appeared to have little intention to attempt combatting anorexia. Perhaps even more worryingly, I began to notice a trend of users giving advice which went far beyond peer support and strayed into medical quasi-diagnosis. It was at this point that I attempted to delete my account…and discovered that I was addicted and unable to tear myself away completely.
Where I thought it would be as easy as simply deleting my own account, and retreating from the community, it turned out that I had become embroiled in many of the other ‘members’’ lives. I found it impossible to stop myself from looking at other people’s profiles, telling myself it was because I really cared about how they were doing. Although I have met some of my best friends through inpatient treatment, our friendships are not based upon a shared eating disorder, but upon the fact that they are wonderful people in their own right – we are not, borrowing one of the hashtags associated with the community, ‘#edfam’ because nobody chooses their family based upon their illness. I don’t believe that seeing pictures of someone’s food on the internet is enough to form a bond outside a collusion of disordered mindsets.
After admitting this to a group of close friends who struggle with eating disorders, it became obvious that I was not alone in my instaddiction. Each of them had their own ‘recovery account’ and wished that they spent far less time on it than they did. Over the course of six months, we talked about the implications of holding an account, and – one by one – removed ourselves from the community. Perhaps scariest is that we didn’t realise either the negative power being part of the ‘recovery community’ had over us, and how much it was holding us back from being able to make complete recoveries ourselves.
Far from being a recovery-positive environment, the community is often a breeding ground for covert bitching – although some members go as far as openly bullying others –: including competition over who can achieve the lowest weight; photographs of tiny portion sizes depicted as ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’, and a source of weight-loss tips, often given as ‘recovery advice’. As an adult, I felt more able to make my own decision about the content I was reading but, and perhaps even more frightening, many of the members are aged between thirteen and eighteen, and run accounts without their parents or friends knowing. This age-group also often posts highly personal information, obviously unaware of the danger in which they are placing themselves. I have experienced younger girls disclosing suicide attempts to the internet at large, leaving not only themselves but their online friends in a potentially deadly situation. Also apparently popular is the posting of captions in which members of the community reveal the tiny number of calories they are consuming and – as someone who has suffered myself – I know how triggering of others’ disorders this can be, as a competitive element of the disorder comes into play.
Where the dangers of ‘Pro-Ana’ websites are very obvious – it is easy to spot the unhealthy nature of people actively encouraging those with eating disorders to lose weight, and openly sharing diet tips – the dangers of the ‘recovery community’ are much harder to spot from the outside. Carefully arranged plates of food; romanticised photographs of extremely underweight sufferers wearing baggy jumpers, sharing amusing stories about treatment and sending packages full of health food to penpals they have met through the community make a terrifying, very real and fatal disease appear to be an easy-to-follow lifestyle choice.
I don’t know what the answer is because I never know what the answer is: I have found stepping outside the community to be difficult but beneficial to my own recovery, but I know that many others would argue that they could not live without the network. I suppose, basically, that I’m saying please don’t fall into the trap of gaining a sense of who you are based upon an illness which, if you find the right treatment and really believe that you can recover, isn’t forever.
Of course, and it goes without saying, this is only my opinion, and I am open to abusive Facebook messages/comments telling me how wrong I am, because I’m a man like that.