As the world’s largest social image-sharing platform, Instagram faces constant scrutiny for its part in perpetuating the media myth of a ‘perfect’ body. Spend a few minutes flicking through the millions of images hashtagged #fitspiration, #bodytransformation and #beforeandafter, and you could soon be convinced that, if you just lost a few pounds, gained a #thighgap and some #abs, you too would be ‘happy’.
Of course, we all know this is bullshit. Being thin doesn’t make you happy any more than being tall does. Your size doesn’t dictate your happiness, it’s your relationship with yourself – with your body and your mind – that determines whether you wake up smiling, or in tears.
And no one appreciates that more acutely than an eating disorder (ED) survivor. An eating disorder – I write from past personal experience – is a form of living hell. It’s a bit like being trapped in a box with all your biggest fears, all the time. It’s exhausting and life-destroying, and I have immeasurable respect for anyone who has managed to beat one; and the deepest admiration for anyone taking on the difficult task of trying to help others do the same.
Which leads us to the sub-section of Instagram users conducting an Insta-revolution, fighting to turn society’s deeply unhealthy – and dangerous – obsession with weight loss on its head. Whether fully recovered, or in the difficult process of doing so, a group of inspirational women are using the social media platform to show that gaining weight is no bad thing. In fact, it can be lifesaving.
The BoPo (Body Positive) Instagram community was created to rival the pro-anorexia and ‘perfect body’ accounts. The women of this community use encouraging hashtags such as #realrecovery, #embracethesquish, #selflovebootcamp and #gainingweightiscool alongside unedited, uncensored images of their bodies and honest, moving descriptions of their mental struggles.
Gina (@nourishandeat) is 30 and lives in Detroit. Consumed by anorexia nervosa for three years – during which time she would eat fewer than 600 calories a day and spend hours at the gym – she now uses Instagram to communicate to her 90k followers that getting better is a real and tangible option. Turning the ubiquitous ‘before and after’ images you see on so many fitness and weight loss accounts on their heads, Gina posts images of herself in the grips of the deadly disease side-by-side with ones of her today – radiant, healthy and happy.
Megan Crabbe (@bodyposipanda) – who has nearly 500k followers – suffered with eating disorders for much of her life, with multiple in-patient stints in hospitals and psychiatric units. Two years ago she discovered the BoPo movement online. “It changed everything,” she told me. “I saw all these women of different shapes and sizes unapologetically loving themselves, and I realised for the first time that maybe I could do that, too. Maybe I didn’t have to starve and hate myself forever. That’s when I truly recovered, healed my relationship with food and with my body, and starting living.”
This sentiment is echoed by Milly (@selfloveclubb) and Dani (@chooselifewarrior), who explain they first began using Instagram to access pro-anorexia content and compare themselves unfavourably to others, but soon discovered pro-recovery accounts and the BoPo movement. “I started to see the beautiful side of social media and how it could be used for great things. I’d say it’s played a huge part in my recovery”, says Milly, who is now taking that same message to her 28k followers.
As a society we’re typically not used to seeing cellulite, stretch marks, rolls of fat or anything less than near-‘perfection’ on our media platforms and, because of this, all the women I spoke to were scared, nervous and hesitant when they first began to post honest, unedited pictures of their bodies online. “I remember literally sweating and shaking when I posted the first picture of my body without retouching or starving myself for months beforehand”, Megan tells me. While the response is, for the most part, overwhelmingly supportive, Instagram is a public platform – they are vulnerable and the trolls do come. “Some days are harder than others,” says Kenzie (@omgkenzieee), a 27-year-old actress, writer and ED survivor from Toronto, “but I understand the importance of continuing to be vulnerable, continuing to push the boundaries.” Megan concurs: “If seeing my belly rolls and cellulite can help someone else feel better about their body then bring it on. If my story helps them feel less alone, then I’m so grateful to be able to share it.”
The strong sense of community among these women and their followers is incredible. Between them, Milly, Dani, Gina, Kenzie and Megan receive thousands and thousands of messages and comments from people struggling with similar issues. “There’s strength in numbers, and when you find out you’re not alone in your struggles it lifts a bit of the pressure and unites you with like-minded people”, says Milly. “There is so much power in the words, ‘me too’”, says Gina.
An eating disorder is a lonely, isolating illness and the solace and support these accounts offer cannot be understated. “Community plays a huge role in recovery,” a spokesperson from the eating disorder charity Beat explains. “Someone with an eating disorder is far more likely to recover if they have people who can help and encourage them during treatment.” Susie Orbach, leading psychotherapist, eating disorder specialist and author of the seminal book Fat is a Feminist Issue agrees: “A community which challenges body hatred is really important, they can really help each other”, she says. There’s an accountability within an eating disorder recovery community that keeps many sufferers from returning to their former illness. They want to stay strong for themselves, and also for their friends.
The causes of eating disorders are as varied and complex as their manifestations, however, the consensus among the survivors I spoke with was that the pressure of our visual culture doesn’t help. “Because we see literally millions of images that have been enhanced, we see a picture of humanity that overwhelms who we are”, agrees Orbach. And although things are changing, “who we are” remains predominantly white-skinned, tall and thin.
“We live in a culture that praises thinness above all else,” says Megan. “That culture isn’t entirely to blame for the ever-rising numbers of eating disorders, but it is playing a massive role, and it definitely played a part in my own body image issues.” Orbach is adamant that social media is exacerbating eating disorders, and adds that – tragically and disturbingly – she sees more people affected by eating disorders now than ever before.
The fact is, what you see and what you’re exposed to in your day-to-day life makes a difference. We know that there should be more diversity in our media. We know that we are not even remotely adequately reflecting our society. The question is, where do we go from here? How do we effect the change we wish to see?
One social media account at a time, according to these women. “Social media is truly changing things,” says Dani, “we don’t have to wait to see someone like us on TV or in a magazine; on social media you can curate your own safe space in which you see what you want to see”. Megan agrees: “Social media enables us to surround ourselves with diversity,” she explains, “which is why it’s so important that we curate our social media feeds to include all different kinds of beauty. For decades, mainstream media has given us the same unattainable, photoshopped image of beauty to aspire to, in order to convince us that we’re flawed and sell us the solution. It’s time we all stopped buying into it.”
If you’re affected by any of the issues in this piece, Beat provides confidential support and advice. Please visit www.b-eat.co.uk
Original feature on Refinery29UK.