I could write a whole article about the toxic underbelly of apps such as Instagram and TikTok – their harmful content accessible via a simple hashtag and only censored by an easily avoidable ‘Do you need support?’ or ‘This image contains sensitive content’. When you’re in the depths of an eating disorder and are feeling at your most vulnerable, often the reflex reaction is to self-sabotage and trigger the hell out of yourself by looking at something that you know will only add fuel to the fire. The fire is (supposedly) keeping you safe and warm, so what’s the harm in dashing a little more lighter fluid on the flames
But, that’s not what I want to talk about. Of course, that side of social media is a huge problem, but it’s difficult to know how to solve it when it involves someone actively seeking out content, or when the line between pro-recovery and pro-eating disorder is so often blurred. Instead, I’m talking about the barrage of adverts promoting extreme dieting apps that have flooded social media within the last year or two.
My Twitter feed is littered with them. I can be absentmindedly scrolling, snorting at cats in cardboard boxes and formulating my next tweet (this one is definitely going to go viral), when suddenly I’ll be confronted by an advert for an intermittent fasting app. Doing what they say on the tin, these apps help you count down the hours until you can next eat and suggest the best ways of starving yourself depending on your body type and age, as well as dangling #thinspiration in front of you like a carrot on a stick. Except, as it turns out, both the picture-perfect body and the carrot are conveniently out of reach.
As a practice, intermittent fasting involves limiting the window of hours each day in which you eat. There are various forms of the diet, with some involving 24-hour fasts, and others limiting daily intake to 500 calories a few times each week. This form of dieting has been lauded as an effective health regime by fitness fanatics and as an extreme lifestyle choice by the tech gurus of Silicon Valley.
I’m not here to debunk the diet – they can crack on for all I care. However, as someone in recovery from an eating disorder, every time I see something like this, I feel confused, angry and even more guilty than usual. Here I am, putting myself through mental torture every day to fight the voice in my head telling me food is bad, being told by professionals left right and centre that what I’ve been doing to my body for years puts my life in danger, but here too is an app suggesting that a 18-25-year-old should only eat one meal a day.
“When I see these adverts, my head goes crazy, screaming at me that I’ve been tricked, lied to, that there isn’t anything wrong with me and it’s all a big fuss over nothing”
Clearly, there is much more to an eating disorder than intermittent fasting. Sufferers don’t tend to be able to eat ‘normally’ outside of fasting windows and they will often continue to lose weight despite having an unhealthy BMI. But when I see these adverts, my head goes crazy, screaming at me that I’ve been tricked, lied to, that there isn’t anything wrong with me and it’s all a big fuss over nothing. An extreme, overly sensitive reaction, perhaps, but this type of thinking is common in people who have suffered from eating disorders.
In another social media example, someone randomly commented on one of my photos on Instagram saying, ‘If you love food, and can’t give up your favourite, then take a look at my new page, full of great recipes and ideas for low calorie food.’ The photo had nothing to do with food and I have shown no interest in dieting in my searches, follows or likes. I messaged the account and politely explained how unhelpful a comment like that is for someone in recovery, but unsurprisingly, I received no response.
In many ways, I have no problem with people promoting dieting in healthy ways. I have never been triggered by a Weight Watchers advert and don’t get stressed when I see a pint of Halo Top come up randomly on my feed. As I said, I don’t care (too much) if people want to use intermittent fasting as a way of losing weight – that’s their prerogative, and it will probably remain physically safe if they eat normally around the periods of fasting. My problem lies with the psychological repercussions of unsolicited comments and adverts for an extreme form of dieting, which promotes not healthy eating, but not eating at all.
Even just a quick glance at an advert like that contributes to the notion that eating equals bad and not eating equals good. It triggers and reinforces the idea that we should feel a sense of achievement when we manage to avoid food and calories, a buzz which very quickly becomes addictive. Having the ‘self-discipline’ to starve yourself for extended periods of time becomes attractive, aspirational and something to be celebrated.
If I, a 25-year-old adult with a reasonable knowledge of nutritional health, am affected by this kind of thing, I dread to think how an impressionable teenager with body image issues is going to react. Many eating disorders, mine included, start off as a desire to lose ‘just a little bit’ of weight, perhaps in reaction to feeling out of control elsewhere in life, or having a negative body image. Not only do these adverts make it harder to recover from an eating disorder, but they could also be a catalyst for developing one.
Diet culture on platforms such as Instagram, TikTok and Twitter is always going to be an issue, as there is little distinction between healthy and unhealthy. Losing weight for one person might be the healthiest thing they could do for their body, whereas for another person, it could be incredibly dangerous. In the same way, one person’s #TransformationTuesday pic can be an expression of body positivity and self-love, but could be another person’s trigger.
But when it comes to the adverts for these apps, people are profiting financially from encouraging these behaviours, some of which could be viewed as disordered. Fine, create your Instagram account to promote your ‘ground-breaking’ 1,200-calorie diet, create your app with its 30-day starvation plan, but please stop shoving them in my (now slightly rounder) face.