Arts & Culture

The Weight of Instagram

Trigger Warning: This article discusses eating disorders


My Instagram feed is littered with food: ice cream cones, pancakes from brunch, late night fried food, and sushi. I can’t say I’m immune to the rising popularity of the “foodstagram,” as I am known to document my love of pizza through social media. In fact, “foodstagrams” have become so commonplace that certain restaurants now even ban patrons from taking pictures of their food. Moe Issa, owner of Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, a restaurant with three Michelin stars, has instituted such a rule. Lamenting the rise of amateur food photography, he firmly believes that it takes away from the enjoyment of the meal and even distracts the chef. Despite the complaints of the restaurant elite, the “foodstagram” is seemingly innocuous. However, Instagram has become a feeding ground for eating disorders—providing a platform for people to encourage each other to avoid food and helping people to hide their eating disorders through their “foodstagrams.” At the same time, many Instagrammers use the app while recovering from eating disorders to establish healthy relationships with food. And while Instagram is positively affecting some with eating disorders, it is potentially dangerous to those who suffer from them, so much so that Instagram itself has taken action to curb eating disorder ”motivation.” The relationship between food, eating disorders, and Instagram is—no pun intended—bittersweet.

In 2012, “thinspiration”—posts that encourage people to be unhealthily skinny—gained a great deal of popularity on Instagram. These posts usually contained pictures of extremely thin women with accompanying quotes that urged people not to eat because “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” “Thinspiration” accounts had thousands of followers and created a forum for people with eating disorders to come together and inspire others not to eat. No company wants its product used to promote eating disorders; accordingly, Instagram soon banned hashtags like “#thinspiration” and “#proanorexia.” It then changed its guidelines to say that “any account found encouraging or urging users to embrace anorexia, bulimia, or other eating disorders…will result in a disabled account without warning.”

Tags that don’t necessarily encourage eating disorders, but simply acknowledge them, like “#anorexia,” now come with a content advisory. Before you can see the pictures under such hashtags, you are given the opportunity to learn more about eating disorders and their negative effects. While this hasn’t stopped pro-eating disorders posts and accounts—“#anorexia” has over 3 million tagged pictures—Instagram has made it more difficult and continues to work to stop the proliferation of “thinspiration.”

In Eating Disorder Review, Dr. Kimberly Dennis, the medical director of a private eating disorder treatment center in Chicago, says that between a third and a half of her clients have used social media to support their eating disorders. She believes that “thinspiration”—what she calls “pro-ana” content—is dangerous and extremely harmful. When patients are admitted to Dr. Dennis’ clinic, she immediately takes away their technological devices until they are ready to erase all “pro-ana” material. After releasing her younger patients, she recommends that their parents closely monitor their children’s internet use, as “pro-ana” websites often can cause a relapse among patients.

Dr. Dennis isn’t alone in her belief that social media can perpetuate eating disorders. A 2011 study from the University of Haifa shows a direct link between the amount of time spent on social media and the chances of developing an eating disorder. Those who spend more time online, obsessing over body image, are much more likely to develop diseases like anorexia or bulimia. With common social media trends like “hot dogs or legs” and people’s obsession with the “thigh gap”, it makes sense that many feel pressure from the Internet to be thin. Because social media is now a constant presence in our lives, societies strict and imposing beauty standards are no longer felt from just print and television—they are commonplace on our computers and in our phones.

A less documented but similar trend in the relationship between eating disorders and social media, specifically Instagram, is the idea that people can hide their eating disorders through food posts. While not much has been written on the subject, many millennials are familiar with users posting pictures of food they didn’t actually eat. Eating disorders have become so stigmatized that hiding them is common practice among those who have them. With the rise of social media, concealing eating disorders has become much easier, as people can effortlessly create the illusion of eating. Therapist Rachel Morris calls this trend “Liarexia,” where people eat in public or pretend to eat on social media, but are consuming very little in reality.

Tackling this issue, @youdidnoteatthat is an Instagram account that reposts pictures of models, celebrities, and bloggers eating food. The account, which claims that these famous people aren’t actually eating the food they are posting and instead using food as props, has close to one hundred and fifty thousand followers. In an interview with The Cut, the founder of @youdidnoteatthat, who has chosen to remain anonymous, said she created the account to fight back against what she sees as a harmful trend and to poke fun at the people posting these deceiving pictures.

Nevertheless, the founder has come under a great deal of criticism, with articles on Jezebel, The Huffington Post and The Daily Mail decrying the account and accusing her of “skinny shaming.” Many believe @youdidnoteatthat does more harm than good by claiming that only women who deprive themselves of food can be thin. Furthermore, they say to truly be body positive, one must embrace all types of bodies—skinny or not. They assert that instead of building women up, @youdidnoteatthat brings them down. Defending herself, the founder maintains that she started the Instagram account in “good spirit.” But the criticism of her Instagram on the blogosphere has exploded to the point where defending the account is now seen by many as “anti-feminist.” The condemnation of @youdidnoteatthat and the subsequent online debate about its effects forces us to wonder: does Instagram only have negative consequences for those suffering from eating disorders?

Lin, a 15 year-old recovering from an eating disorder in Singapore who interviewed with The Daily Mail, would say no. After battling anorexia, Lin created an Instagram to personally document her rehabilitation. Posting pictures of the beautiful food she creates along with words of encouragement, “food-positive” messages, and recipes, Lin uses Instagram to help her and her followers develop a healthy and supportive relationship with food. Her “foodstagrams” have caught the attention of the social media world; her account, @tumblinbumblincrumblincookie, has over one hundred thousand followers and serves as an online community for those recovering from eating disorders. Many doctors now actually encourage patients like Lin to post pictures of their meals on social media. While this phenomenon caused initial skepticism among many health professionals, it has proven successful. Even doctors like Dr. Dennis, who takes away social media from her patients, acknowledge its positive benefits. Dr. Dennis believes that social media can be used to support recovery efforts. Her clinic has a blog aimed to help people overcoming eating disorders, and she considers the Internet to be one step among many that can support patients on their path to recovery. Also believing that sites like Instagram can be used to heal, not encourage, eating disorders, The National Eating Disorder Association and Eating Disorder Hope have launched an online “Pro-Recovery” movement.

As Instagram attempts to end the promulgation of “thinspiration” and as more people learn about social media’s damaging effects for those with eating disorders, hopefully the “Pro-Recovery” movement will take shape and gain attention. While it can be argued that @youdidnoteatthat is combating these issues in the wrong way, it is important remember why the founder started her Instagram account in the first place: to encourage people be truthful about what they eat. Suffering from an eating disorder is painful and often isolating; it makes sense that people turn to social media platforms, like Instagram, where they can anonymously discuss their disease. The less we stigmatize eating orders and address diseases like anorexia and bulimia head on, the more likely it is that Instagram will return to the place to post pretty landscapes, pictures of your friends, and food you actually ate—not “thinspiration.”

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out to Health Services (617-627-3350) or the Counseling and Mental Health Services (616-627-3360) here at Tufts. Additionally, the Lauren Hill Inn and the Cambridge Eating Disorder Center (CEDC) provide off-campus treatment alternatives.

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