Social media can provide support but often perpetuates eating disorder stereotypes

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Eating disorder survivors often share recovery pictures like this on Instagram

Depending who you ask, social media is either a major driving force encouraging eating disorders or a safe place to find or develop communities offering support for those suffering from eating disorders.

Of course, the truth is most likely somewhere in the middle. While so-called “pro-ana” or “pro-mia” communities can promote dangerous body idealization and eating disorder advice, there is no denying that even more eating disorder survivors are using platforms like Instagram and Facebook to find others who have lived through similar struggles and offer support.

One of the biggest ways this takes shape is in young women sharing photos of their bodies during recovery and messages of encouragement for health-focused eating. Unfortunately, some experts believe this phenomenon may be unintentionally perpetuating stereotypes about eating disorders across social media.

Andrea Lamarre, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph in Canada, says that while eating disorder support groups provide “valuable space for supportive community”, they largely exclude groups not stereotypically represented in the media (such as minorities, men, or overweight individuals).

Working with her advisor, Dr. Carla Rice, Lamarre evaluated over 1,000 images under the topic of “eating disorder recovery” on Instagram. What they found was that these posts overwhelmingly reflected the “stereotypical trappings of the experience of eating disorders.”

“Most posts continued to feature thin, young, white, women,” Lamarre wrote on The Conversation. “Further, they frequently featured stylized versions of food, reflecting a certain class status and engagement with ‘foodie’ cultures, as well as focusing on food in eating disorders, which are about more than food.”

Despite the fact that eating disorders can affect anyone – from young to old, black and white, and men or women – groups that don’t fit within the mold of “thin, young, white, women” are largely ignored in all forms of media.

While this might seem like an innocent omission, studies have shown that lack of representation can lead to under-diagnosis, under-treatment, and more extreme stigma surrounding eating disorders for these demographics. This, in turn, perpetuates the idea that only young white women are likely to develop eating disorders, creating a self-fueling myth.

Social media’s role in eating disorder advocacy and support isn’t all bad, however. Lamarre notes that a number of users actively subverted these stereotypes and challenged the concepts of body image or perfectionism.

“They used hashtags in unexpected ways, for instance tagging a photo of a dessert ‘#HealthyEating,’ Lamarre explained. “They commented on others’ posts, offering reassurance and community to others working to live recovered lives.”

“However, in order for such communities to be truly transformational — to challenge the stereotypical representations of eating disorders and recovery — they would need to present a wider range of bodies and practices.”

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