When Julia Grigorian, a 20-year old college student based in San Diego, was in the throes of an eating disorder, she scrolled Instagram for pictures of #foodporn while exercising. One night, while supporting herself in the plank position, she came upon the hashtag #edrecovery. That moment, she says, changed everything.
"I realized there was an entire world of people out there, just like me, struggling with the same demons," Grigorian said.
She's right: Research from Anorexia Nervosa And Related Eating Disorders (ANRED) suggests that 1 percent of all female adolescents suffer from anorexia, while 4 percent of college-aged women have bulimia, and one percent of women suffer from binge eating disorder. These numbers don't reflect the undocumented population of those suffering from subclinical eating disorders, like compulsive exercise and orthorexia.
I stumbled upon the #edrecovery tag while looking at tags for vegan recipes on my Instagram feed. Immediately, I assumed this trend promoted disordered eating, in the same vein as the now-banned #thinspo and #proanorexia tags. Instead, #edwarriors, #edrecovery, and #edsoldiers are communities that strive to support users through their eating disorder recovery.
Community members, most of whom appear to be young women, often provide lengthy, thoughtful comments to one another, encouraging them to follow their meal plans, seek out mental health professionals, and be honest about their struggles with their families and friends.
"Photos can be difficult as recovery tools because they still emphasize the external and promote potential comparison."
The #edrecovery tag has been used more than two million times, and the community grows by the day. While some girls boast small followings on private accounts, others have followers in the thousands. Instagram offers an anonymous way of connecting with strangers; it's no surprise, then, that young people experiencing the shame and terror of an eating disorder may seek out support from a virtual world.
Relying on Instagram could be detrimental to recovery, however, especially if it is one's sole source of support.
Social media forums are not regulated, said Margot Rittenhouse, a mentor with Mentor Connect, an online eating disorder recovery community. A well-meaning Instagram user could, for instance, post content that promotes unhealthy attitudes attached to a community based tag, she said.
Furthermore, "photos can be difficult as recovery tools because they still emphasize the external and promote potential comparison," she said, whereas true eating disorder recovery focuses on the emotional and mental transformation, not just the outer shell.
Social media can also enable anorexics to create the appearance of recovery more easily even when they may not really be getting better. They may "purport to be doing well and taking advice while still incredibly unhappy and unhealthy" but still secretly "drowning in their mental illness," she said.
Instead, Rittenhouse advocates for recovery that involve a range of treatment, including work with therapists, dietitians, psychiatrists, and additional support groups.
Robin, a 21-year-old junior at Northern Washington State who asked to be identified by only her first name because of the sensitive nature of eating disorders, also said that photo comparison is a major drawback of the recovery community.
"Posting transformation photos can lead a girl still in the grasps of her ED to compare her current body to the 'before' photo of the girl posting the transformation photo," she said. Comparison is also an issue when, for example, users judge their caloric intake or meal plan against that of another user. "Am I eating enough? Am I eating too much?" she said. "Should I not have had that extra slice of cake since so-and-so didn't post a treat today?"
Robin feels that the opportunity to keep a "public journal" added some element of accountability to her recovery. However, she's stopped participating in the #edrecovery community as her confidence has grown.
"I've shifted myself away in the past few months because it feels like more of a competition than a supportive community," she said. She credits her progress largely to counseling.
Grigorian said the overwhelming support from #edrecovery was instrumental to her recovery. Her initial "transformation" photo got over 200,000 likes. She has also stopped participating, though.
"I'll never forget the encouraging support it provided me," she said, "but I honestly don't think I understood what it meant to live outside of my identity as someone with an eating disorder until I got rid of the account."