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Recovery or regression: The problem with eating disorders and Instagram

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There have been calls from psychiatrists for Instagram to crack down on pro-eating disorder content. But how far do they have to go to protect those who are at risk?

To be an Instagram user is -for many of us - to be constantly bombarded with picture perfect bodies, #fitspo content and advertisements for Flat Tummy Tea.

A BBC investigation uncovered content that encouraged eating disorders and body dissatisfaction is rife on the platform.

There’s been calls from psychiatrists for Instagram to crack down on content that could promote eating disorders in the same way it eliminated images of self-harm in early 2018.

At the same time, a separate community of disorder-related accounts has popped up - those focused on the ‘recovery journey’.

Finding a community

A new generation of people diagnosed with an eating disorder are using Instagram to track their daily eating habits and recovery.

recovery journey
The Feed

Speaking to people that run these types of accounts, they vouch for a sense of community and support they found after starting their feeds.

“I was not aware how big the community was at all,” says Tig, an Adelaide women who runs a ‘recovery journey’ account.

So many people came to my profile and left sweet comments and motivated me to beat this horrible illness.

recovery journey
The Feed

But for others who have experience with eating disorders it’s a stark warning sign.

Picture perfect

In the early 2000s the internet was rife with pro-eating disorder chat rooms and websites that not only promoted dangerous habits - but gave instructions.

Ruby Winter, who was diagnosed with an eating disorder at 13, used these chat rooms to fuel her disease. Now 29, she’s worked in public health for 11 years.

She says Instagram ‘recovery journey’ accounts can act as viceral triggers for people who experience eating disorders.

 I don't see Instagram recovery pages as positive. Its simply perpetuating the obsessiveness with food and comparison of your diet to others.

 Winter says that to truly begin to recover from an eating disorder, appearance and food has to take a back seat.

“An eating disorder is much more than food and your physical appearance," she told The Feed.

“Food should be forgotten instead focusing on health and feeling good and achieving life goals, not body or food related.”

Representation matters

Experts agree that there’s no black and white answer to what the solution is.

Dr Carolynne White, health promotion lecturer at Swinburne University, conducted a literature review with one of her students into the link between image based social media and body dissatisfaction.

What they found was that the presented perfection of Instagram can lead to a slippery slope of extreme dieting, compulsive exercising and, in some extreme cases, eating disorders.

She agrees that even in cases of 'recovery Instagrams', food and eating is still the focus which could possibly be harmful.

“A key part of eating disorder recovery is looking beyond the appearance of the body and looking at how the persons body functions and other measures of their self worth like relationships, abilities and hobbies.”

The Butterfly Foundation is one of the leading voices for eating disorder prevention in Australia. They developed the #OwnYourFeed program in collaboration with Instagram to help at-risk people navigate the platform.

According to national manager of prevention services Danni Rowlands, when it comes to social media platforms, education is key.

 Recovery is a very individual thing.

“For some following a recovery journey might be very helpful but for example if a lot of food imagery is included in a profile that might be triggering,” Rowlands told The Feed.

“Platforms can be doing more and it’s great that progress is being made, but we need to ensure individuals are aware of what these platforms contain.”

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing an eating disorder or body image concerns we encourage you to reach out to the Butterfly Foundation National Helpline 1800 33 4673 or visit www.thebutterflyfoundation.org.au

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