Overcoming an Eating Disorder With Instagram

Many patients post photos of their meals and changing bodies to document their recoveryand in the process, some have found an online community of supporters.

Hayley Kremer, a 20-year-old student at Colorado Mesa University, believes that her eating disorder first began in high school—but she’s struggled with body-image issues for much longer. She’s been in recovery for a few years, and sees both a nutritionist and a counselor. But on top of these more traditional recovery resources, she largely credits her Instagram account for the significant progress she’s made in getting better.

Kremer’s account is devoted to her recovery, and her feed is filled with colorful photos of carefully prepared meals and occasional treats, as well as pictures of herself as she’s progressed through and beyond her eating disorder. Most of Kremer’s posts include lengthy descriptions of her personal recovery story, attracting a wealth of comments from others with similar experiences. There’s a substantial community of recovery accounts like Kremer’s, and hers has amassed more than 18,000 followers since she started it in 2012.

Troubling “thinspiration” and “pro-ana” (as in anorexia) posts that promote disordered eating with glamorized photos of emaciated bodies and words of encouragement from fellow sufferers have long existed on social media and elsewhere online, but recovery accounts such as Kremer’s show another side of these disorders entirely: the hard work of getting better. (For the record, Instagram has an official policy banning images or hashtags promoting self-harm.) These recovery accounts are usually maintained very regularly, mostly by young women and girls in various phases of their eating-disorder recovery. They function as both a food journal and documentation of the process from disordered eating toward healthy habits. Some include recipes and detailed descriptions of meals; many feature “body progress” photos comparing before and after photos of users as they begin to recover. Most take on a confessional tone—detailing fears, accomplishments, and anxieties about food and body image.

This type of account offers the combination of a support system and a degree of anonymity. Many users don’t create their recovery account in their full name, and others never include photos of their faces. Erzsie Nagy, a student at Middlebury College, admits that she was very embarrassed when people from her personal life first discovered her recovery account, though she later grew more comfortable with the idea. The vast network of other recovery accounts forges a supportive digital community for those pursuing health—one that, for some, becomes a group of real-world friends.

“I have met some of the people I’d consider my best friends through this account,” says Malia Budd, a student at Duke University who maintains a recovery Instagram and has wrestled with anorexia and other disordered eating behaviors for about five years. (She’s been in recovery for about a year.) “It’s kind of a crazy thing to tell people you met through your Instagram, but people post such personal things that it’s easier to get to know someone on such a different level,” she says. She considered attending an in-person support group at her college, but never attended because the available spaces filled up. She’s comfortable in the Instagram recovery community because of the layer of separation it offers from her everyday life: “It’s harder to open up to someone if you know you’re going to see them in different environments every day.”

But not all of these recovery accounts look alike, and some still show an unhealthy preoccupation with food and body image. Many users will document every meal and snack, others include calorie counts, and some will share figures such as their lowest weight or “days binge/purge free.”

“Part of an eating disorder is an obsessive quality around food intake and exercise,” says Rachel Benson Monroe, the clinical-programs coordinator at the Multi-Service Eating Disorder Association in Newton, Massachusetts. “Anyone who is spending an inordinate amount of time talking about or posting about what their food intake is—that’s gonna be a little bit of a red flag.”

As an image-based platform, Instagram lends itself to tendencies often associated with eating disorders, such as an obsession with physical appearance and constant comparisons to others’ bodies and diets. “Certainly we know that social media doesn’t cause eating disorders,” says Claire Mysko, the director of programs at the National Eating Disorder Association. “But it can amplify a lot of the thoughts and behaviors associated with one.”

Because these accounts aim to promote recovery, it stands to reason that the users who maintain them may not have yet freed themselves of all the rules and self-regulation that come along with an eating disorder. Others looking at their posts may feel the line blurring between the promotion of healthy habits and a continued preoccupation with diet and exercise. Benson worries that many individuals recovering from eating disorders might have a hard time parsing these conflicting themes when looking at other recovery accounts.

Mysko points out though, that while these accounts could send mixed messages to viewers, or inadvertently promote some bad habits, that doesn’t reflect on users’ intentions. Rather, it’s totally realistic. “Even when people are motivated to recover, they have setbacks,” she says. “If you’re doing all your recovery in public, that can be triggering for some people, but paints a pretty real picture of what recovery is.”

Kremer acknowledges the potential for these pitfalls. Last fall, she took a month-long break from Instagram—she usually posts several times per day—to focus on her recovery, because she felt the platform was inhibiting her progress with her disorder. She was becoming too wrapped up in her Instagram, rather than focusing on making positive changes in her real life. “Some girls feel pressure to post pictures every day of their food and their bodies,” she said. “Feeling the pressure to do that every day is not healthy at all.” Kremer emphasizes that she doesn’t post photos of everything she eats—and never includes calorie counts, to dissuade her followers from making comparisons.

Her hiatus allowed her to come back to Instagram with a better mindset, and she has resumed regular posting and has reached out to others with recovery accounts if she grows concerned that they’re posting too frequently or writing a lot about comparing themselves to others on the platform. “I’ve told a lot of girls that they need to take a break from Instagram,” she says. “I used to be just like them, so it’s hard for me to see them like that.”

In many cases, the nature of a recovery Instagram evolves as its user does. Budd admits that her account started out as more of a food journal, which in many ways wasn’t particularly helpful for her eating disorder. Only when she began formal recovery, with counseling and outpatient therapy, did she redefine her account to focus on truly recovering. She now regularly posts about her desire to live a healthier life, celebrating the times that she overcomes her fears of certain foods. “Some [people] only use these accounts until they get to a comfortable place,” Nagy says. “Then once you stop associating food with negative emotions, it can be helpful to stop using your Instagram. Part of finishing your recovery can be deleting the [account].” Kremer’s Instagram bio used to mention that she was recovering from an eating disorder—while her posts still revolve around her food and exercise habits, she has since removed that identifier from her description so that it no longer defines her.

Mysko says that the appeal of an anonymous Instagram support system makes particular sense for this community—“because there’s a lot of shame and secrecy involved” with eating disorders—but she still emphasizes the importance of face-to-face interaction. “To be able to say these things aloud, in real life, can be really important,” she says. For Benson, the most compelling reason for in-person support groups is the regulation: “The difference with in-person groups is that they’re run by therapists and people who have themselves recovered. They’re monitored, and really carefully done—as opposed to peer-led.”

While recognizing the potential for negative consequences, Kremer, Budd, and Nagy all credit their Instagram accounts with significant improvements to both their outlooks and their support systems. (For all three of these women, Instagram is only one element of their recovery; they’ve all used other resources as well.) They also all mentioned the value they found in helping others recover.  “People reach out to me and tell me I’ve inspired them to become better,” Budd says. “They’ve told me I’m the reason they go into recovery. It makes me feel really good that I’ve helped other people, and if I ever relapsed, I have so many others to keep me accountable.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all model for eating-disorder recovery. Posting publicly about recovery on social media could be helpful for some, but not for others. “Eating disorders are very nuanced, highly complex, and vary by individual,” Mysko says. Following and maintaining these accounts can be an aid or an obstacle to recovery, she said, “depending on what someone’s triggers are.”

Benson echoes this sentiment. “If you’re working on your recovery and you post an Instagram that’s asking for support, and you get a lot of responses that are supportive and helpful, who am I to complain about that?” she says, but adds, “Someone may get a lot of support from Instagram, but there’s no substitute for evidence-based medical care.”