Let’s Talk About The Strange World of Online Eating Disorder Communities

by thethreepennyguignol

(small side note: my next book is available for pre-order right now! Please consider grabbing a copy at a pre-release discount right here!)

Will I ever shut up about eating disorders? All signs point to no. But anyway, now that I’m a good chunk o’ time into recovery, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way that I used social media made for people with eating disorders – and whether or not it was a good or a bad thing for me at the time.

‘Cause here’s the thing – I am very much in two minds when it comes to the social media communities that are built around eating disorders. There’s a part of me that believes that there is, undoubtedly, an enormous relief in knowing that there are other people out there dealing with the same thing – Jesus, did you know how much of a relief it was to know that the batshit insanity that went through my head on a regular basis when I was fully in the the throes of being a disordered maniac weren’t mine alone? One of the things that I have been most grateful for in dealing with mental illness in the age of the internet is having constant and quick access to people who can assure me that everything that I am going through doesn’t make me an indescribably nutso hopeless case – there have been times when literally just reading someone else’s account of their own health anxiety, for example, reminds me that my fatalistic bullshit is just that – bullshit. Shared by other people, and therefore, diluted by their existence, too.

But when it comes to eating disorders, I have some…other thoughts, too. Because I can honestly say that it was a constant engagement with ED communities that help to buoy my disorder in something that felt like normalcy. Almost all the content I was consuming was related to eating disorders in some way; I’d sit down in front of the EDAnonymous subreddit every morning like I was flicking through a newspaper. And some of it was searching for people who would make me feel less ridiculous, for sure – but a lot of it was about couching the things I was doing in this broader sense of comfortable normality. A disorder like this one eats your life whole (no pun intended) – it infects everything about the way you live your life, even as you try to deny that it does. In order to maintain such obviously damaging behaviour, you kind of have to find things that support what you’re doing, even if they’re coming from places that are unafraid to call it the disordered lifestyle that it is.

Even when it comes to so-called “recovery” social media, I have to admit, I have my doubts. I certainly don’t think that every person who engages with recovery of their eating disorder on a public scale is doing so with the intention of providing more triggering, normalizing material for the people, and, in fact, I think most of it comes from a place of solidarity and positivity. But there’s no arguing with the fact that eating disorder recovery has become an option for branding in the land of social media, and that, by necessity, almost entirely requires the person creating such content to focus their content, and, by extension, their online life on their recovery. Presenting their persona as one permanently attached to recovery feels much the same as permanently attaching it to disorder – it’s an extension of the same mindset that I was in to normalize a life built around eating disorders. It was a place that I could obsess over food and restriction and everything that came with it, wrapped up in the promise that all of this was actually recovery.

When I was at the very bottom of the barrel of my restrictive phase, I was snorting up great big lines of recovery content every single day. Because it was easy to tell myself that, if these people were normal for fitting a life around EDs, so was I. I’m not blaming any of these people or indeed anyone else in general for the eating disorder stuff that I dealt with, but I am of the opinion that some recovery communities can encourage over-focus on remaining in recovery instead of life after an eating disorder. Yes, eating disorders and associated behaviours might well be something that you deal with your whole life, but inviting that constant focus on your disorder feels like a big beckoning finger back towards relapse. It’s one that I have been tempted to answer the call of a few times now.

Eating disorder social media, in a lot of ways, is something that really helped me not feel so helplessly alone at a time when I often felt like nobody else would understand the bullshit I was putting myself through. But, at the same time, they provided a comforting safety net that allowed me to convince myself that what I was doing was, on some level, normal – that a life built around this disorder was to be expected, and was even a sustainable one (hint: shitting yourself in public is not sustainable. For very long, anyway). I would never advocate for the destruction or removal of communities like the ones I mentioned above – because my experience of them is just one of many, and there are plenty of people who have expressed finding enormous comfort and support in those places – but, having been in recovery for a hot minute, I’ve started looking back on my use of them as a big part of what propped up my ED in the first place.

If you’re someone handling an eating disorder, and you find yourself gravitating towards this comfortable surrounding of eating disorder social media, it might be worth questioning why – and if you’re coming there for support, or because it’s a safe place for you to go to convince yourself your eating disorder is a normal way of life.

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(header image via Canmac.space)