Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is struggling with a medically diagnosed eating disorder or disordered eating please call the National Eating Disorder Information Centre helpline at 1-866-NEDIC-20.
It all started in March 2020, a month filled with uncertainty due to the eruption of COVID-19. In the midst of chaos, the streets were empty, the air felt heavy, people were lonely; the world was quiet.
The days were repetitive and as someone who cannot simply do nothing, I found myself eager to kill time.
My social media feeds were filled with ways to get busy — everything from baking to cleaning or staying active. I, Jasmine, committed to focusing on my physical health.
My routine consisted of sessions with two trainers, a nutritionist and a therapist. As an unemployed university student, this felt attainable. I love competition and I remember thinking I could push myself further and further.
At the time, eating came easy and the numbers on the scale did not phase me. Shockingly, I was unaware my perfectly constructed understanding of balance was beginning to fade.
Now, over a year later, I have realized that I was so focused on becoming a different person that I stopped being compassionate towards the Jasmine that already existed.
Alone, I turn again to social media for a sense of mutual support, but my Tik Tok and Instagram feeds are filled with new recipes to try, tips on losing weight and workout videos.
No matter what I do, I can’t escape the lack of self-control.
People who already have an uncomfortable relationship with food or their bodies might not realize that as they increasingly rely on social media to alleviate the boredom of the pandemic, they may be witnessing the normalization of bad habits.
Sure, there are positive resources on social media too, but for people with medically diagnosed eating disorders or disordered eating habits, turning to social media can be an unhealthy coping mechanism.
According to the American Psychiatry Association, the behavioural conditions known as eating disorders can be divided into three types: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.
Katie Castle, a registered psychologist, says these behaviours are complex and difficult to recover from psychiatrically.
“There’s no one thing that leads to somebody developing an eating disorder,” she says. “It’s a combination of things like an inherited or genetic predisposition, personality and environment.”
A spectrum of struggles
Castle is adamant about differentiating the sections of the spectrum on which these struggles occur.
“There’s also a lot of people who suffer from what we would call disordered eating, who don’t qualify for an official diagnosis.”
I fit into this category and I’m not alone.
The National Eating Disorder Information Centre states that one million Canadians struggle with eating disorders.
Lauren Ritchie, a mindset and mental skills educator, has been one of my mentors during this journey. The former competitive dancer says that using food as punishment was a cry for help during what she calls her past “athletic identity crisis.”
“It was a tool that does give you immediate rewards and it does give you some biological kickbacks,” says Ritchie. “[It’s] a manipulative behaviour for self-sabotage.”
Recovering from bulimia has led Ritchie to pursue personal research about a culture that demonizes food, weight and body image.
“There are essentially three things that you can train as a human being. You can train your body, you can train your craft and you can train your mind,” says Ritchie. “If you are not in a space of mental wellbeing where you have mental support and resources, the other two tend to fray at the seams.”
Castle says social media is not a healthy escape because anyone can see anything online.
“Whether it’s extremely disordered eating or an actually diagnosed eating disorder, social media is one more thing that you have to consider either avoiding or being triggered by when you navigate it,” she says.
A study conducted in 2019 analyzed individual female exposure to pro-eating disorder content on various social media platforms. It became evident that the emphasis placed on a restrictive lifestyle can result in an eating disorder diagnosis, depression and anxiety. Through a 25-country European survey, the study found that 10 per cent of children aged 9-16 had seen pro-eating disorder sites online.
Castle also says that communication on social media is so instantaneous, there is no vetting of information.
“We’re taking medical advice from people, from strangers on the internet who may or may not actually have any kind of expertise in this area.”
According to Castle, eating disorders are isolating and lead individuals to become triggered by certain risk factors. These so-called red flags orbit around social habits.
“One of the reasons why eating disorders are difficult to recover from is because you are going to be faced with eating every single day, all day long for the rest of your life,” she says. “You have to face your demons every single day.”
No easy solution
Despite the prevention and recovery steps an individual may take, pro-eating disorder behaviours are hard to break.
By choosing what content we’re interacting with on social media, an individual has the opportunity to rewire their platform algorithm. Both Castle and Ritchie emphasize the importance of managing social media feeds.
“For my own mental health, I have had to do what I call an influencer audit, meaning that every time I open up a social media platform, it is my social media platform and I have to protect it,” says Ritchie.
Because social media is constantly available, Ritchie says it has become a very addictive habit.
“I think that social media, and our choice within social media, is one of the most powerful tools that we can use,” says Ritchie. “So to exercise mindfulness, to exercise critical thinking and to exercise real power and choice, that’s the ultimate best practice.”
Castle and Ritchie both acknowledge that isolation can be one of the main causes of eating disorders. But, admitting the struggle is the first step to finding support while facing these obstacles.
The pandemic helped me understand that although my chances of being compared are never going to disappear, it is up to me to stop interacting with self-deprecating content.
Scrolling through fitness pages, making workout plans and calculating everything I put into my body was bringing me no benefit. I needed to prioritize my mental health as the foundation for my recovery.
Unfollowing every fitness and food-related page was the change I needed to make in order to reverse my physical and emotional damage.
By training my algorithm to shift away from perfectionism and obsessiveness, I have begun to see small shifts in my behaviour. I feel worthy of my daily meals. I feel confident in my clothes. I feel comfortable taking rest days. I feel in control of my emotions, physical health and overall relationship with myself.
Finally, the pieces of my puzzle are in place.