Hashtagging eating disorders: help or hindrance in recovery?

Recovering from an eating disorder can feel very isolating, which is why people are increasingly using social media to document their progress. But the trend raises questions about whether or not that's healthy.

Recovery strategies being shared on social media sites

A new report said anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa kill an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Canadians each year, but noted the number is likely higher as eating disorders are often not listed as cause of death. (Darren Tunnicliff/Flickr)

Recovering from an eating disorder can feel very isolating, which is why people are increasingly using social media to document their progress. But the trend raises questions about whether or not that's healthy.

In a video posted to YouTube, a young woman named Hannah in Vancouver, B.C., expressed her struggles with an eating disorder. 

Hers is one of thousands of videos you'll find online of people, mostly young women, sharing their stories. A recent parliamentary report of the standing committee on the status of women found that between 600,000 and 900,000 
Canadians may meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder.

The report, "Eating Disorders Among Girls and Women in Canada," said women and girls make up about 80 per cent of those with eating disorders. Disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating are "characterized by a persistent disturbance of eating or eating-related behaviour that results in the altered consumption or absorption of food and that significantly impairs physical health or psychosocial functioning."

Andrea LaMarre is a PhD student in family relations and human development at the University of Guelph and she studies young women in recovery from eating disorders. ​LaMarre said social media feeds are the new domain for eating disorder support groups that use hashtags like "eating disorder recovery" to find viewers. 

"On Instagram you'll find hundreds of thousands of posts that you can scroll through so it seems like people are really taking to these online communities. I think maybe to find that sense of other people having been through similar experiences because I still think that people don't talk about it in real life maybe as much," she said. 

LaMarre knows firsthand what it's like to suffer in silence. She developed an eating disorder when she was 15 but recovered by the time she was 20. But she said it was only in the last few years that she began to talk about it openly. Unlike those going through the recovery process now, she said she didn't have the option of turning to social media feeds for support. 

LaMarre said the personal support she received from her family and friends was instrumental in her recovery, which is why she's a bit torn about the emergence of Instagram as a means of support. On the photo sharing service, many of the people documenting their recovery are posting pictures of what they're eating. For example, someone might put up a picture of a doughnut they want to eat and are looking for support in helping them do it.

"The problem with kind of taking a picture of everything that you eat is this kind of real emphasis on the presentation of everything and making sure that everything is absolutely beautiful," she said. "And I feel like that fixation can make it a real performance that can maybe possibly obscure some of the challenges that could be going on underneath."

LaMarre said eating disorder recovery is about a lot more than just focusing on what you're eating all the time. What she'd like to see is people posting pictures that show you can overcome an eating disorder and live a happy life.

"If the hashtag 'eating disorder recovery' might be populated with pictures of people just doing things that maybe don't have anything related to food or bodies," she explained. "You know going for a walk in nature... or just something that involves just being and just living life to show people that eating disorder recovery is about a lot more than just kind of making a perfect meal."