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How Instagram can fuel or fix an eating disorder

Scrolling through the ‘popular’ page on Instagram, there are two things you can’t escape – the Kardashians’ scantily clad selfies and beautifully arranged food from Perth’s best cafés.

But there are now other types of photographs that are starting to infiltrate the page and they sit somewhat uncomfortably next to the posts of food with excessive carbs and grease.

These photos are of plates of food with nothing but green leaves or selfies of young women with nasal tubes lying in hospital beds, frail and lifeless. They have been posted by people who run eating disorder recovery accounts.

If you search #anorexia on Instagram, about 4.5 million posts will appear. This is one of the many hashtags included in posts, predominantly from young women, using social media to help themselves and others recover from eating disorders.

Emojis with heart-eyes and comments of admiration bombard these posts. “GOALS!” “You’re so stunning.” “I wish I looked like you.”

The Butterfly Foundation, one of Australia’s leading eating disorder support organisations, says more than two million Australians will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. They say these figures will rise if symptoms are not detected in the early stages of the disease.

Prompted by the growth in the number of recovery accounts on its platform, Instagram has recently included an ‘About Eating Disorders’ page in their online help centre. The page explains what an eating disorder is, helps users to identify the signs of an eating disorder and provides advice about helping people who live with an eating disorder. It is Instagram‘s only information page for mental illness.

For those living with an eating disorder, the Instagram recovery accounts provide an emotional support group full of like-minded people. But outsiders and professionals claim this can lead to dangerous consequences, with spiralling effects.

Sitting in a buzzing café in Applecross, I wait for Cassie, who did not want her last name to be published, to arrive.

Not knowing what to expect, I’m taken aback when a young, cheery woman walks inside, pushing her sunglasses on top of her head.

“Are you Eliza?” she asks, as she pulls up a seat at the table, placing her black handbag down on the seat next to her.

The 24-year-old occupational therapy student was only released last week from Hollywood Private Hospital, one of Western Australia’s best known mental health services.

For Cassie, the recovery accounts she operates on Instagram and Tumblr are the main forms of support for her depression, eating disorder, and diagnosed borderline personality disorder.

She was never close to her dad, and her mum passed away a year ago.

“I use my account more when I’m struggling with the eating disorder because I tend to want to vent more and I tend to isolate myself. I find it harder to talk to people in real life,” she says.

Cassie’s tall skim latte arrives and she takes small sips between questions.

“I know there are people who do post these before and after pictures and they are doing it to genuinely raise awareness, but sometimes it can perpetuate that eating disorders are all about being really underweight, and if you’re at a healthy weight you are all fine again but that isn’t the case,” she says.

University of Western Australia psychology senior lecturer Jason Bell says those living with an eating disorder often perceive body shapes differently to those without.

“We know from experiments in psychology that someone with an eating disorder is going to find particular pieces of information unhealthy, and it will be things to do with unhealthy, thin female ideals and dietary restriction,” he says.

“It isn’t just that they are looking at the wrong things but they perceive them and make value judgments about them differently.

“Those things lead to a cycle of unhealthy thinking.”

George Skoufis has been working with the Butterfly Foundation for a little more than six-and-a-half years. He speaks at conferences for carers, mentoring those living with an eating disorder and telling his own story. His heavy use of social media, in particular Facebook and Instagram, focuses on raising awareness for his work within the organisation.

Skoufis, now 35, kept his developmental eight-year struggle with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder private until he was fully recovered.

“Nobody knew about my issues until I was fully recovered, so I went through pretty much my whole recovery and battle alone, aside from one person and my psychiatrist,” he says.

“No one knew at the time, so I didn’t have anyone knowing during my recovery phase.” 

Post recovery, Skoufis looks at his behaviours in a different light.

“The problem when you’re going through [an eating disorder] is that you often don’t know what could be triggering to someone else who is still going through it as well,” he says.

“You know, you learn once you are post recovery that you don’t talk about numbers, or you don’t talk about behaviours that trigger yourself, because that could trigger someone else.

“It can be positive but you do have to have an understanding of what to share as well. “

Posts by those running recovery accounts often emphasise weight and body mass index numbers.

I ask Cassie about her previous blog, one she kept from 2010 till 2013. It was not anonymous.

“I blogged about my experiences, like how I was doing, my appointments with different professionals, being in hospital and what it was like to live with the various mental illnesses that I was dealing with,” she says.

“I found that it was a really good way to connect with others because when I was younger, like in high school, I didn’t know anyone else who was dealing with mental illnesses so it was really good to read the experiences of people who ran other blogs.”

Her eyes dart around the café, the eye contact that was previously so strong, slowly fading.

“The only reason I stopped is because I was writing about being nervous for fieldwork for uni and then some occupational therapist from overseas was concerned about [what I was posting] and contacted uni. Uni read my blog and asked me about it. It was really embarrassing,” she says.

Cassie says she has since learnt to keep her accounts as private and as anonymous as she can.

Bell, who graduated with a PhD from the University of WA in 2008, sees anonymity as a major hurdle in recovering from an eating disorder.

“If you stay isolated and anonymous, you’re not engaging with a more positive message. You’re not being re-corrected in terms of the way that you’re attending to information out there in the social media world,” he says.

Cassie sees some downfalls to recovery accounts; a spiraling game of ‘who has it worse?’ Although, for her, the risk does not outweigh the importance of the friends she made online who helped her to where she is now.

“On Facebook, when people try and raise awareness I think they’re more genuine because most people on Facebook are sharing it with their real life friends. I think people [on other platforms] tend to try and glamourise it. It’s unhealthy to always post before and after pictures like, ‘This is how underweight I was with a gastric tube and now this is me healthy’.”

Unlike Cassie, Skoufis says he was always going to be open about his mental illnesses, regardless of social media.

“I initially wanted to talk about my story in a way to, I guess, make my struggles not be for nothing and to get something positive out of what I went through. I was always going to be open whether it be with the media or support groups,” Skoufis says.

Although Bell believes the anonymous nature of recovery accounts can be dangerous, he says social media can provide a key support network.

“The important thing is being a part of groups where the message is positive and working back towards correct and helpful cognitive thinking styles, rather than staying within support networks where the thinking is like minded,” he says.

He says recovery accounts should not be the only support patients receive.

 

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