Eating disorder soldiers: Help or hindrance?

HER RECOVERY: One Twitter user shared a photo of her progress along with the hashtags #beatana #edsoldiers and #anorexiarecovery
HER RECOVERY: One Twitter user shared a photo of her progress along with the hashtags #beatana #edsoldiers and #anorexiarecovery

Much has been written about the insidious nature of the 'Thinspiration' movement, and how harmful blogs and social media accounts that glamourise and covet eating disorders are.

And while sites like Instagram and Tumblr have made efforts to stamp out the movement, increasing their monitoring of hashtags like #thinspo and #proanorexia and barring those terms from searches, the reality is thinspiration is everywhere for those who seek it out.

Because it's not just social media, but media generally, where images of excessive thinness that can potentially be used as fuel for those seeking thinspiration can be found. Unrealistic, harmful images of thinness and unattainable bodies are everywhere.

FROM THINSPO TO FITSPO: Swedish blogger Antonia Eriksson documents her anorexia recovery via her popular Instagram account.
FROM THINSPO TO FITSPO: Swedish blogger Antonia Eriksson documents her anorexia recovery via her popular Instagram account.

But more recently, a response to the pro-anorexia/pro-bulimia movement has emerged as people in recovery from eating disorders share their stories and desire to become strong and healthy.

Earlier this year 19-year-old Swedish fitness blogger Antonia Eriksson began documenting her anorexia recovery via Instagram - a process she now shares with 34,000 followers.

 "I've always been quite strict about sharing, about what I share and don't share," Erika says. "People ask how much I weigh or how many calories I eat, and I won't talk about that. I don't want to share numbers because I know that triggered me, and I don't want that to be what my account is about."

At first glance, a search on Instagram for the hashtag #edsoldiers - eating disorder soldiers - and similar terms like #edwarriors and #edsurvivors brings up mostly harmless images of food. Greek yoghurt with berries. Ice-cream. Salads with grilled chicken. By showing the foods they are managing to eat, and even enjoy, those in recovery seem to genuinely want to help others.

But scattered among the images of food are selfies of recovering patients. And despite being presumably healthier than when in the throes of their eating disorder, these images still depict overwhelmingly skinny people, mostly young women. If seen by someone in the throes of an eating disorder, these images could still be potentially triggering.

On the other hand, sharing is an important and helpful component of recovering from an eating disorder, says Christine Morgan, who is chief executive of the eating disorder support organisation, The Butterfly Foundation.

"I think social media is still a safe environment, so it's not about the environment but about what it is you're actually sharing," she says.

"Using social media is fine, it's a great way to reach out an help someone else trying to recover. But it's also important while doing that to hang on to values about who you are and what you want while sharing in that environment."

Ms Morgan says posting images of the body may be problematic because those in recovery from an eating disorder are encouraged to move away from size, shape and the physicality of the body. Instead, they are encouraged to think about their values and what they want from life, and how these values may help them reclaim and live their life in a meaningful way.

"Body shape and size imagery can drag some people backwards," she says. 

"By sharing images showing size and shape, I worry it may be reinforcing that size and shape still matter."

Anything placing too much emphasis on the body could potentially be triggering to someone in recovery, she says, which can be a long and difficult process fraught with the potential to go backwards.

"Recovery is a journey - you don't wake up one day recovered and it takes every day working on it."

The internet brings out the best and worse of society, and unfortunately those sharing their recovery stories on social media are sometimes targeted by trolls. The trolls sometimes claim to be part of the thinspiration and pro eating disorder movements, and make cruel comments on recovery photos.

Perhaps being targeted so cruelly is not surprising since #edsoldier and similar movements may have come about as a direct response to harmful thinspiration sites, says Chris Thornton, a psychologist who has been working with eating disorder patients for more than 20 years.

He is the Clinical Director and Principal Clinical Psychologist of the Redleaf Practice, which provides specialist outpatient treatment to those suffering from eating disorders. 

"I think theres a danger with images and selfies because you don't ever know - no matter your intention when you're putting it up - how it might impact somebody who is very ill, or how it might be used by others" he said.

"But I believe most of the images and stories being shared by those in recovery come from a good place, and I think parents and health professionals have a responsibility to understand social media and how it is being used.

"Young people using these hashtags for most of the part seem to be telling their recovery story to inspire others - and that is a damn sight better than those who are unwell putting up photos on pro-anorexia and thinspiration websites."

- Daily Life