Why We Still Need To Talk About Social Media & Eating Disorders
My anorexia story.
Sensitive content: this article talks candidly about drug use and the eating disorder anorexia.
You never fully recover from addiction – always an alcoholic, always an addict, always anorexic. You may not act on your toxic thoughts and feelings, but they're always there, haunting you. When an anorexic is released from the hospital and treatment – where they've been monitored, analyzed, dissected, burned to dust in an attempt to be rebuilt – the addiction isn't gone; they've just learned to quiet the voice in their head.
Imagine being sober and having to constantly dodge vodka martinis. Imagine being invited to bars and clubs by your unsympathetic friends, only to be told you're “no fun” for drinking lime and soda; being on a collision course with quips about heavenly poolside cocktails. When you've had an eating disorder, you feel like an alcoholic in one gigantic bar; temptation lines every step.
I’ve always had an incredibly toxic relationship with my body and one of my greatest talents is self-destruction, from starvation to speed benders. Fortunately, I grew out of a lot of these habits as I approached my early 20s, but the after-burn still lingers. I can predict my fluctuating moods like the weather, the calm before the storm, the warning signs of mania followed by a dark, hollow depression. But I no longer need a chemical release to cope, or to control my mind with the pain of my body.
In my third year of primary school, I was given a Toffee Crisp and had it hiding in the toilet so that nobody knew I ate 'bad foods.' That's when I realized I had a morbid fascination with weight. I was seven years old. Remember that Nicole Richie bikini pic? I do, vividly. She was running down the beach in a blue bandeau bikini, barely skin and bone. I saw it when I was in the supermarket with my mom. I wanted to look like her even though I knew it was wrong. I was 13 years old. And at 16, I was hoovering lines in the back of my mates' moms' kitchens to make the hunger miraculously disappear.
Things spiraled after that. As I began to abuse drugs and partying, I discovered the two birds, one stone of appetite suppression: xanax and pills. Looking back at my photos from summer 2013, I feel sick. I would cane drugs all weekend, only to suppress any resurgent appetite on Wednesdays with a pallid cocktail of protein shake and half a cup of rice. I was gray, weak and unmotivated. I slept through my hunger pangs and failed at everything but partying. Where do you draw the line between party and punishment?
Gray areas go far beyond 50 shades with complex image-related disorders – and there certainly isn't anything remotely sexy about them. Education and conscientiousness, breaking the taboo, are easier said than done. And breaking the cycle with 'health' more often than not leads to obsessive compulsions, fixations or fads with no longevity or benefit.
But eventually, something clicked. I'm not sure what it was exactly as I don't remember much from those years. After my relapse, my doctor explained that as much as it may seem like a life sentence, our bodies work in cycles – and for some of us, those cycles are extreme. More than simply riding through ups and downs like other people, we are wired with the incapacity for stability.
On the 17th of November 2017, diagnosed with panic disorder, anorexia and bipolar, I was readmitted to a home-treatment team, and things started to make a lot more sense. This cute little combination of internal hell is surprisingly easy to mask. Narcissism and nasty behavior lie are the facade of trying to hold it together. I think this was my control thing rearing its ugly head: control of my exterior and others' impression of that. This is something that social media facilitates all too easily.
As a society, we are conditioned to talk about how much we 'hate' our bodies, how 'bad' certain foods are and how much we 'need' to work out. We are told to be proud of putting our bodies through 'punishing' programs. I don't want or need to know my weight, but sometimes the scales tempt me, staring with vacant eyes, begging me to step up. The voice I've worked hard to keep quiet grows louder. An addict strains to feed the urge.
We desperately need to change our perception of these image-centric behaviors. This is no longer simply about tiptoeing around those who are medically diagnosed with body image disorders, but every young woman and man scrolling through Instagram, bookmarking 'bikini bodies' and 'thinspiration,' silently suffering behind their social veil. Emily Tanner, in her 2015 paper Girls, Instagram, and the Glamorization of Self-loathing, describes it as a “disturbing subculture” which “epitomize[s] a self-deprecating mindset in relation to one's weight.” It's damaging and it's heartbreaking.
As a guest lecturer in Fashion Image Making at the University of Salford, UK, I can see a thirst for change in the students' work – undoubtedly the wheels are in motion for a broader shift in beauty standards. But how do we go one step further, to step away from the pink-hazed glow of screens and magazines and address the epidemic crippling armies of talented teenagers?
Serious mental illnesses are being taken far too lightly in online communities: anorexia is being reduced to a simple control mechanism, anxiety as cuteness and depression as depth. But likes, comments and followers, however numerous, won't hold your hand when you're rattling, bursting out of your skin and bone. I know that firsthand.
Working as a freelancer in such an image-focused industry makes this hurdle-to-be-leaped Himalayan in scale. I have often sabotaged my own self-development, and my day-to-day consistency is almost laughable. Chasing invoices and antipsychotic meds do not go hand in hand either. I still have my bad habits: posting dangerously thin-looking images on Instagram Stories; swapping out lunches for hot water; not eating in front of new acquaintances; calorie counting menus via Google. But then I’ll binge on baklava and down daiquiris on a bank holiday like there's no tomorrow, finally enjoying the freedom of tasting food rather than the metallic stagnancy of Zoplicone.
Because I'll always be an addict, but from rock bottom I'm building stronger foundations, seeking balance and stability. And I won't stop until I reach the top.
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Next up, why the key to overcoming your demons is not fighting them.