My best friend’s Instagram “discover” page is full of photos of golden retrievers. My mother’s, of inspirational quotes superimposed onto nature scenes (you know the ones). Whenever I open up my favorite app, however, I’m immediately bombarded with videos of women with four-packs demonstrating workouts, or perfectly-lit images of green juices. The algorithm’s not wrong—I am always double-tapping and saving posts of exercises I can do while traveling, of healthy recipes, and new smoothies to try. Like my BFF’s puppy pics and my mom’s quotes, Instagram is just showing me more of what I usually engage with.
For the most part, I enjoy discovering new #fitchicks and influencers I can follow for on-the-fly wellness advice. But in a social media environment where one doesn’t need a medical degree in order to dish out advice to tens of thousands of people, it’s important to be wary. For as many times as I’ve found myself finally learning the proper form of an exercise, I’ve also been led to a page with captions that any registered dietitian would deem ludicrous, or in some cases, even dangerous.
I’ll point to a recent “health trend” that has disturbed the internet: dry fasting. A step beyond buzzy-as-of-late intermittent fasting, dry fasting not only requires abstaining from food (already a slippery slope) but also from water for a set period of time. Dozens of reputable health experts, even ones who support some form of intermittent fasting, have denounced dry fasting as being unhealthy and dangerous. Yet I keep seeing people promote it all over Instagram; paired with photos of thin bodies are paragraphs encouraging restriction.
“Food addiction is real,” writes one self-proclaimed dry fasting expert. “The brainwashing goes deep.” In a now-deleted post, another supporter of dry fasting declared, “food is just another attachment… there are people living without water and food.”
Almost word-for-word, it’s all too reminiscent of the eating disorder forums I, and unfortunately many millennial women of a certain age, frequented back in the early- and mid-2000s.
Coming across these posts, I was struck, obviously, by the completely unhealthy advice, but also by the familiarity of the language used by these “wellness” influencers. Almost word-for-word, it’s all too reminiscent of the eating disorder forums I, and unfortunately many millennial women of a certain age, frequented back in the early- and mid-2000s.
Found on old school platforms like Xanga and LiveJournal, “pro-ana” blogs (yes, as in pro-anorexia) were filled with “thinspiration” pictures of emaciated models and celebrities deemed goal-worthy. Alongside these photos were platitudes praising purity and restriction, going so far as to compare the disease to something divine (anorexia was often personified as “Saint Ana”). Co-opted lyrics from Radiohead’s “Creep” made frequent appearances—I want a perfect body, I want a perfect soul—as did a Latin phrase, “Quod me nutrit, me destruit” (What nourishes me, destroys me).
All of these messages are eerily similar to those publicized by the supporters of dry fasting today. One blogger, who claims to promote “mindful living and well-being,” has detailed the “toxicity” of water (pretty up there in terms of nourishment) in her past posts, favoring instead the more “pure” intake of fruits and juices. And the above-mentioned dry fasting expert also wrote that fasting is a way to “reconnect to the truth of your divine eternal nature” and to “purify your body and your soul.”
They might seem like just words, but they have power. I first stumbled into the pro-ana online community when I was about 11 years old. I might have been looking for some dieting advice, I might have just clicked on a pretty picture. I didn’t set out to connect with young women who encouraged each other to “stay strong” by starving themselves, or shared tricks for hiding their habits from parents and doctors. But, not long after, my personal Xanga, which I had created to write angsty poetry (as one did at the time!), became a food journal, where I calculated calories in and calories out, adorning each post with those very same “thin-spiration” photos and quotes. If I could look back at my blog today, I’d see colorful creative writing give way to the flattened, food-obsessed words of a girl struggling with an eating disorder. If I looked back at it now, I’d know that it would take years for her to develop a healthy relationship with food again.
If I could look back at my blog today, I’d see colorful creative writing give way to the flattened, food-obsessed words of a girl struggling with an eating disorder. I’d know that it would take years for her to develop a healthy relationship with food again.
While I’m sure not everyone who came across those blogs developed an eating disorder, I know that the words and messages of the pro-ana community enabled mine. Which is why this modern wave of Instagrammers has me so concerned—both for them and the followers they’re preaching to.
“Language is important. It unconsciously colors how we feel and what we do,” says Jim Curtis, health coach and head of brand at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. “Mindful language is a key to health but [so is] recognizing language that is harmful to your unconscious perceptions like this is.”
Though dry fasting and its dangers are the worrisome trend du jour (which, for the record, Curtis says is “total bologna…we are water, need water and operate from water”), it’s not the first or only example of influencers veering dangerously close to disordered eating. Plenty of bloggers have even come forward to admit that their own platforms served as gateways to developing orthorexia, an obsession with “clean eating” that fuels restrictive habits. And a multitude of research shows that dieting and food restriction increases a person’s risk of eating disorders.
Now, as for the posts that Instagram promotes on my “discover” page, I’m lucky to be far enough along in my recovery to recognize advice that crosses the line from healthy to problematic. But how can someone who is genuinely trying to embrace a healthier lifestyle navigate such a loaded social media minefield and avoid the trap of turning wellness into an obsession? To answer that question, I consulted Alissa Rumsey, RD, nutrition therapist and owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness.
“Watch out for anyone who is giving specific diet advice including calories, specific portion sizes, amounts to eat each day, or who advocates cutting out certain foods or food groups,” Rumsey says. “Be careful [when it comes to] people who purport to be ‘non-diet’ or ‘anti-diet’, yet still talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, ‘clean eating’ or give advice on how to lose weight—because this is all still diet-y and restrictive.” It’s subtle, but can be a slippery slope, particularly for people who are already grappling with eating disorders.
Instead, Rumsey suggests “following accounts that feature a more diverse range of body shapes and sizes and share balanced healthy living advice… Look for dietitians and fitness professionals who are not only sharing photos of themselves and are instead sharing tips and helpful advice for how to reconnect to your own body.”
And, just saying, if you see the word “pure” on an Instagram post, it’s probably best to block immediately—and hope that that person gets some help.
Why New Year’s resolution season can be a challenging time for eating disorder survivors. And here’s what you should know about atypical anorexia, which often hides in plain sight.
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