Very often what we see online enhances a belief that we should do things a certain way and live our lives to an accepted standard. We scroll through the external lives of people we will never meet or talk to but who have a distinct influence on our lives. That influence has affected many things we do, including, high on the list, the way we eat and our relationship with food. This is not always helpful.
Food is more than fuel for our bodies. We use it as a way to express ourselves and as a bond with our friends. It sustains us not just physically but emotionally. As such, our relationship with food is formed by numerous factors, including, in the smartphone age, social media. And social media can undermine our self-image, sense of self-worth and perception of what good food is.
Evidence shows that social media has resulted in an increase in poor body image and disordered eating. The causes of eating disorders are complex, but social networks can play a part. Over the past couple of years the counselling psychotherapist Susi Lodola has witnessed a rise in the number of teenage girls and young women coming to her clinic with orthorexia nervosa, which is an unhealthy obsession with healthy food. The link to social media has been evident.
A young client had intrusive thoughts around being worthless if she can't stick to her self-imposed regime and control what she eats. Often parents don't recognise this as an eating disorder, as all they see is their child eating only healthy food
“This condition often coexists with anorexia,” says Lodola. “It can cause food anxiety, restriction in eating and intrusive thoughts. A young client I worked with had a strict regime of eating certain foods at specific times of the day, all of them healthy, however very low in calories. She followed various healthy-eating accounts on social media, which were her guides on how to be healthy and fit, ultimately believing only then will she be popular and liked.
“She had intrusive thoughts revolving around being worthless if she can’t stick to her self-imposed regime and control what she eats. In addition, she had thoughts around the awfulness of gaining any weight and what people might think about her. Often parents don’t recognise this as an eating disorder, as all they see is their child eating only healthy food.”
The online healthy-eating community preaches in a way that can amplify poor self-worth and self-image. Although this is not what it is attempting to achieve, it can lack the understanding or the perspective of someone whose relationship with food can be triggered by so called #foodgoals or #fitspiration.
The writer Ranae von Meding, whose life for more than a decade was dictated by bulimia, says, “We are so susceptible to being influenced by what we see. These days in particular we are all spending so much more time on social media, and it’s easy to get sucked into thinking that social media equals reality. It does not.”
Eating disorders have been the number one cause of mortality of all mental illnesses, affecting every aspect of a person’s life, from their behaviours to how they think. With social media so easily influencing our actions and thoughts, it can be a tough battle for anyone who may be triggered by the perceived online healthy lifestyle.
Being healthy is as individual to a person as the clothes we wear. Our lifestyles, histories, likes and dislikes combine with how we envisage a healthy lifestyle. As Ranae says, "With more than 167 million posts on Instagram alone, #healthy is one of the most widely used hashtags. There is nothing wrong with being healthy, but healthy does not mean the same thing for everyone. Being healthy, whatever that might mean to you, is good. But an obsession with being healthy is not. It's counterintuitive and damaging."
The connection we have with those we follow online, although superficial, makes us trust their advice. They are advertised as being exemplary members of the healthy-living movement, with or without the expertise. And while they are praised for their commitment and lifestyle, we may struggle to keep up with this supposed standard, which may not be the direction our bodies and minds should go in.
“Some influencers may not have any qualification in health sciences or nutrition and promote products and diets that can potentially be harmful,” says Lodola, whose weight-loss-management programme, Mind Over Body, focuses on our relationship with food and how to counter negative food associations.
“Following eating and nutrition advice from unqualified individuals who may be perceived as experts can set you up for failure. Some of the ‘diets’ that are promoted are unrealistic, and therefore not many people can follow them and result in most people giving up. This perceived failure can lead to feelings of shame, guilt and worthlessness. A vicious cycle of bingeing and restricting food intake often ensues, and this can harm your relationship with food in the long term.”
The negative associations between food choices, the unnecessary pressure to exercise in a certain way and the lack of care of the mind before embarking on a regime are all evident on our social channels. “Looking at various content around food on social media,” says Lodola, “you often see posts that have connotations of the importance of control over what we eat and the certainty of becoming fat if you don’t exercise self-discipline. Messages categorising food into ‘good’ food and ‘bad’ food can lead to unhealthy behaviours around food consumption and, in extreme cases, to eating disorders.”
The unbalanced conversation around food, exercise, healthy living and eating disorders can be harmful. “I think the many people who have not experienced an eating disorder, or a mental-health issue, do not necessarily understand how all-consuming it is and how difficult it is to recover,” says Ranae. “Eating disorders are still viewed as a taboo subject and something which can be rectified by simply starting to eat again. Most people don’t understand the complexities of these illnesses. A huge shift in our collective thinking is needed, and if that doesn’t start on social media, then it will never happen.”
Ranae's say that if what you see on social media creates or intensifies negative feelings about yourself or your relationship with food, unfollow that person. "The best solution is to step away from the content that makes you feel bad," she says, "One step better, demand more appropriate and responsible content from the publications and people who have influence in our society. If someone is posting irresponsible, triggering and harmful material, then call them out on it."
If you are concerned you may be developing an eating disorder, see Bodywhys, call 1890-200444 or contact your GP