The Surprising Way People With Eating Disorders Are Using Instagram

Photographed By Sunny Shokrae.
If you use Instagram, you’ve likely seen one of the 23 million uses of the hashtag #fitspo — but while the platform is a collection point for thousands of aspirational “health” accounts, it has also become a hopeful gathering place for users recovering from eating disorders. Many have found invaluable support from fellow recovering Instagrammers and other social-media cheerleaders. As with fitspiration, though, the line between encouragement and obsession is subtle, and community often gives way to competition. Instagrammers Hayley Kremer (@hayls_sprinklesofsunshine) and Antonia Eriksson (@eatmoveimprove) understand these dangers only too well. 21-year-old Kremer first began struggling with anorexia in 2011. “I had just gotten back from a school trip, and I weighed myself, because I felt like I ate a lot of junk food,” she explains. “And so I got on the scale, and I saw the number, and I was like, Oh, my gosh, it's really bad.” Kremer began to restrict her food intake and in 2013 joined her college’s track team, which ultimately fueled her disorder. “To be honest, I didn’t start running just because I wanted to. To me, that was the fastest way to burn calories and lose weight,” Kremer explains. “I actually fell in love with running, and it became something I really enjoyed…but it felt more like a job…and my personality is ‘all or nothing,’ so I would do it even if I was in a lot of pain.”
Around the same time, Kremer created a fitspiration Instagram account, @healthy_hayls, on which she documented her meals and exercise for a follower base that soon numbered in the thousands. “When I came up with that [account], I thought I was being healthy,” Kremer says. “At the time, I thought it was a recovery account.” But her dedication to being a beacon of “health” soon pushed her further toward the eating habits that characterized her anorexia. Many health professionals, including Janet Tintner, PsyD, a New York-based clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, are concerned about the fine line between health-conscious and compulsive. “Part of the problem is that one feature of the disease is denial,” Dr. Tintner says. “People can be incredibly thin and not realize it. This is the danger, and online, the problem is that if you have a person who’s anorexic, it’s very hard to tell them that they’re heading into an anorexic mindset.”
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States suffer from eating disorders, an umbrella term for illnesses including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. Of these 30 million, only 10% receive treatment. Some seek nontraditional, nonprofessional support by joining online communities, as Kremer did.
The predominately female recovery-community members treat their accounts like diaries, posting shots of balanced meals and changing bodies accompanied by captions that reflect how users are feeling that day. Many users in the early stages of recovery chronicle their experiences eating “fear foods" — food items that they have feared will lead to unacceptable weight gain. Currently, the Instagram hashtags #anarecovery, #edrecovery, and #strongnotskinny have each been used over a million times, connecting eating disorder sufferers across state lines and national borders. These hashtags are the virtual rallying cries that have helped Kremer attract her now-19,000 followers, but along with gaining support, a popular account can also come with the pressure to maintain the appearance of a “perfect” recovery journey.

I just hope to inspire other girls, help them, and give them hope, because I know how awful it is. And it can seem like things will never get better.

Kremer finally sought professional help for her eating disorder and body dysmorphia in the summer of 2013; the following year, cognizant of the damage that her Instagram fame was inflicting on her mindset, she logged out of her @healthy_hayls account for a month-long break. When she returned to Instagram, she modified her approach. “I changed [my handle] to @hayls_sprinklesofsunshine because I didn’t want it to be labeled with anything that had to do with health or fitness. That’s not what I wanted my Instagram to be about anymore, really. And I love sunshine and I love sprinkles, and so it just felt like it fit me,” she says. “My journey is a part of who I am, and if people can't accept that and don’t like that, then I don’t need them in my life... I just hope to inspire other girls, help them, and give them hope, because I know how awful it is. And it can seem like things will never get better.”

? In recovery from anorexia ? at my highest weight ever in my "bulk" last winter ? today, working towards a #badassbody! ?? •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• So you guys know I don't share pictures of my body very often, since for me that isn't what working out and eating healthy is all about - even if it is a bonus! I also don't want my Instagram to be about how I look but instead about how I feel.. BUT I decided that I wanted to show you my progress and also share with you my insights. You see, even though these are 3 different looking bodies with different weights I have come to love and accept all of them. Why? Because they are all me. However I may look I will still always be, accept and LOVE me. ❤️ It took so long for me to come to this point, to realise that I am not defined by how I look or what I weigh and guess what? When I realised this and started working with my body because I love it, not against it because I hate it - magic started to happen. Today I am happy, healthy and stronger than ever. Living in moderation, eating ? and drinking ? when my heart needs it and ? with ? when my body need is. I'm killing it at the gym, growing and evolving and enjoying every second. ? I have found my balance. I have found self love and acceptance and I have grown more than I ever thought was possible. ❤️ You guys. Recovery is possible, it is worth it and if I can do it so can you! •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• ?

A photo posted by Antonia Eriksson (@eatmoveimprove) on

Antonia Eriksson, the Swedish 20-year-old behind the Instagram account @eatmoveimprove, understands that virtual support can only do so much. Eriksson was hospitalized three years ago for an eating disorder — brought on by stress, control issues, a difficult childhood, and a bad breakup, she says — that left her “looking like a skeleton,” as she wrote in one of her posts for her 40,000 followers. Eriksson first created an anonymous account called @fightinganorexia (which later became @eatmoveimprove) to “show people that it was possible to recover and also be a part of the Instagram community connected to eating disorders,” she says. “There was this beautiful support system that I wanted and needed to be a part of.” But Eriksson readily acknowledges that it took two years of seeing a therapist-doctor team (with whom she worked while running her Instagram account) for her to reach her goal weight, and now she emphasizes the value of professional help. “[Anorexia] is a mental illness with physical symptoms, so finding the underlying problem is necessary for recovery,” she says.
Like Kremer, Eriksson is also wary of the dangers that come along with cultivating a public presence, no matter the intention: “It is very important for me to stay distanced and remind myself that Instagram is so far from real life, and a platform where people only show their best sides,” she explains, “and if you can’t stay distanced, you should stay off those kinds of platforms." This is a balance that can be especially hard to strike while in recovery. Dr. Tintner echoes Eriksson's words of caution: “You do not know who you are getting information from online. You need to assess who a person is before being influenced by them," she says. "But nothing — absolutely nothing — is a replacement for seeing a professional. There are limitations as to what you can get from your peers.”

Instagram is so far from real life... If you can’t stay distanced, you should stay off those kinds of platforms.

Reflecting on her Instagram experience, Kremer also warns that while sharing her story with Instagram’s recovery community has been therapeutic and fulfilling, the platform can also be "a very negative thing.” "There are definitely girls that feel like they have to post at certain times of the day and have to post pictures after the gym every day," she says. "I was one of those people. It was just obsessive and awful and not healthy.” Kremer has now been receiving professional help for over two years in addition to finding support online. “There are people [on Instagram] who say they're recovery accounts and are recovering, but they can be triggering to other girls," she explains. "I definitely tell girls that have eating disorders not to have an Instagram until you get to a place where you can find balance in it, and just do it in a healthy way.”

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