Instagram seems to be a virtual warehouse of hundreds of thousands of images of girls posting their transformation photos. Most often, from “anorexic and thin” to “strong and fit.” They reveal their rib cages, among other visible bone structures in the left photo, aligned next to a “toned” and muscular body in the right half of the Instagram post. Both pictures also usually expose a girl in very little clothing, often only underwear or a pair of workout shorts that could be doubled as underwear. The caption is something many of us have come to be able to recite without even looking at a photo: “the girl on the left was weak, doing 7 days of cardio, and eating X number of calories. The girl on the right is strong, eating X number of calories, lifting weights, and is healthy.” It’s become a script, that I personally feel has lost its appeal or inspiration.
As someone who has posted the “before and after,” I can understand the choice from a few different perspectives. Three years ago, I posted the photos as a way to promote my fitness progress. I was one of those girls that posted photos revealing far too much skin, and never forgot to take a picture of my high protein and high carb diet I was consuming in order to adhere to “body building” rules. It was another way to control my eating and my body: if I was posting pictures, then I was held accountable. I would morph into the identity of a “fitness girl” based on the photos I calculated would give me the most “positive” results (or the most *likes*). I recently posted a before and after during eating disorder awareness month as a way to show the different between how I carried myself as a person: my facial expression, particularly, changed drastically from one that was forced, to one that felt natural and accepting of the person I became. To be honest, at this point I’m hesitant if I’d ever post any sort of before and after photo again.
Competitive nature of eating disorders
When we scroll absentmindedly through our Instagram feed, especially if we follow fitness profiles, we’re exposed to these transformations on a daily basis. Each one seems to be a mirror image of the last in terms of what the photo reveals, as well as the caption. Along with this, comes indirect competition amongst their followers. Throw having an ED (past or present) into the mix of things, and you’re left feeling more and more “not enough,” and less and less accepting of the body you’re currently in. When we see a girl who has “recovered” and who is posed in way to reveal the most muscle town she possibly can in one photo, we are left to wonder why we don’t appear similarly throughout our weight restoration. We’re left to wonder what we did wrong, what we must change in order to look like her, all while feeling envious that her before-photo looks just a little bit “worse” than ours. That’s the nature of eating disorders: the “winner” is the one who was at the lowest weight, engaged in the most ED behaviors, and had the most hospitalizations. It becomes a competition, and I want no part of it.
In many of the captions, you may also find these fitness Instagrammers selling their workout plans or nutrition plans through their own personal business. While I cannot 100% guarantee this, my assumption is many of these girls posting transformation photos may not actually be registered dietitians, or have their personal fitness training certification. The problem also lies in these Instagrammer’s assumption that what worked for THEM to recover will work for EVERYONE. This assumption can leave their followers with unrealistic expectations and feeling more like a failure if the plan doesn’t work for them in the exact same way. These photos offering up fitness and nutrition services also devalue professionals who actually obtained their degree. Fitness Instagrammer’s have found a social media sphere that is full of insecurities and a lack of self-acceptance. The frustrating part is: they’re profitable because of it!
Glorification of anorexia
When we’re revealed over and over again these transformation photos, it’s glorifying the nature of having an ED itself. Has anyone noticed that almost EVERY fitness Instagrammer ironically has also suffered from an ED? While I cannot say for certain whether they have or have not, there seems to be a pretty obvious theme here. Fitness Instarammer’s gain followers, especially from the “anorexia realm” on Instagram, by also reporting that they, too, have an eating disordered past. And maybe they truthfully have! That being said, I can’t help but question the legitimacy of this, and also point out the very narrow path that seems to follow eating disorder recovery. Fitness. Body building. Isn’t it just another way to limit intake, food choices, and adhere to very specific exercise regimes?
Isn’t there more to life?
One of the most consistent struggles I’ve heard from patients is that they aren’t sure what life will look like without their anorexia. It becomes a defining feature of their identity, and without it, they’re often (initially) confused and frustrated about their future. When we see photos of thousands of recovered individuals on Instagram solely posting photos of their body transformation, their workout routine, and their food (this is a serious question though, why must there be photos of every meal you eat?), I begin to wonder: what else are they doing with their time? I can place myself back into the last phase of my recovery, when I became very obsessed with weight lifting. I looked at fitness Instagrammers as a source of guidance to determine what my life should look like. I based my diet off of what they were eating, because I genuinely believed this was what recovery must mean. Rather than adopting a new identity, it becomes one handed to you involuntarily through Instagram. Once you claim yourself to be a fitness Instagrammer after recovery, there is this odd (and pressured) sense of accountability that you must continue living up to what is “expected” from you as one. Sounds a lot like the trapping-nature of anorexia itself.
Anorexia is NOT a tool!
So many of these Fitness Instagrammers gain traffic and followers by simply posting that they once suffered from an eating disorder, are now recovered, and own every pair of workout pants that Lululemon has to offer (as seen in their photos, of course). Anorexia has become a tool to gain followers on Instagram. You want to decrease the stigma of anorexia, while also increasing awareness of its severity? Great. There are other ways to do so than posting your body on Instagram for those still struggling to see and compare themselves to daily. Having anorexia is not a tool. It is painful, frustrating, isolating, destructive, and scary. It is constant anxiety, anger, and hopelessness. It is not something that is meant to gain an extra follower or 100’s of extra likes on a photo. You want to show the world what it looks like to be recovered? Then go out there and just BE recovered; you don’t need a photo to prove it.