“How the internet fuelled my eating disorder.”

My eating disorder “journey” so far has been nothing short of tumultuous. It’s been a long, hard road, and I know it’s not going to get easier any time soon, but today, I’m going to tell you a story.

I’ll set the scene. Imagine an impressionable, 18-year-old girl – studious, passionate, selfless – studying hard at university with the ambition of becoming a surgeon. But beneath this seemingly “normal” exterior, a cultivation of self-hatred and perfectionism (among other things) was brewing.

The girl was rapidly descending into the grips of an eating disorder.

Yes, the girl in this story is me. I have experienced every aspect of eating disorder culture there is – from word-of-mouth weight-loss tips, to the online “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) community, and this particular story centres on the dangerous, online world of eating disorders.

When I initially decided to start dieting, it was sincerely with innocent intentions. But as with most issues, there was a catalyst which turned this innocent feat into a full-blown eating disorder, and that catalyst was the internet.

I started researching weight-loss tips – exploring various websites about healthy dieting and exercise, but it wasn’t long before I encountered pro-ana content. What still disturbs me is how easily accessible this content is. You can Google some phrase related to dieting or weight-loss, and it only takes a few clicks before you’re on some webpage about tips for starving yourself.

Needless to say, being someone who is quite susceptible to external influences, these websites piqued my interest and I started reading about and trying everything I could to lose weight. On top of this, the popular social-networking website, Tumblr, was probably the easiest avenue for accessing pro-ana content. A simple search of the word “skinny” opened my eyes to thousands of blogs dedicated to weight loss and eating disorders.

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At the time, I didn’t see this as an issue – I started my own weight-loss Tumblr and I would repost pictures and quotes to motivate and inspire me to lose weight. It didn’t seem like a bad thing at the time, but in retrospect, I can rationalise that it was an incredibly unhealthy move on my part. But could you blame me? I was desperate to obtain a body that I believed others would deem “acceptable” and “attractive”.

My blogging quickly transitioned from an occasional habit, to a full-time obsession. I would spend almost every waking hour searching, liking and reblogging pro-ana content, purely for my own use. Furthermore, I started to document my own weight-loss journey, posting pictures and regularly writing about my feelings, thoughts and experiences.

Fast forward to late 2015 – I had just come out of my second 5-week hospital admission, and I was still incredibly unhappy with my body. I started to return to my old eating disorder behaviours which resulted in yet another dramatic weight loss. I still hadn’t told anyone about my blog or my online life, but my documentation of my weight loss journey had started to gain a lot of attention among Tumblr’s eating disorder (ED) community.

This attention was like a drug to me – people were praising my progress and complimenting my “will-power”. However, it was when I posted one specific comparison picture that my “internet-popularity” amid Tumblr’s ED community somewhat exploded.

Within hours, the photo had been reblogged over a hundred times, and it gradually began circulating among the ED-related tags. Ever since I posted that photo, and still to this day, I receive both hate-mail and fan-mail from hundreds of people. The hate mail includes “Kill yourself you anorexic c***”, while the fan-mail generally consists of any variation of “How did you do it?!”, “Do you have any tips?”, “You’re my inspiration!”, or “You look so amazing!”. To the fan-mail, my response was usually the same – not a warning, nor a threat, but merely a plea:

“I can’t disclose information about how I lost weight because I did not lose weight in a healthy way, and I’m not healthy now as a result. Not eating is not the answer. Please be safe and get help – this is a path you do NOT want to go down.”

Now, I must stress – I have never been, and will never be “pro-ana”. I’ve never advocated eating disorder behaviours, I’ve never shared tips, and I’ve never wished this on anyone. In fact, I do my best to discourage others from heading down this path.

I would never want anyone to go through what I’ve gone through, and I constantly feel guilty that I might’ve somehow indirectly encouraged someone down this path – it kills me to think that I could be partially responsible for someone’s illness. But when I think about myself and the influence these sites had on me, I don’t blame the people who created them because I know that they’re just as sick as I was.

eating disorders
"Still to this day, I receive both hate-mail and fan-mail from hundreds of people."

You may be thinking "why didn't you just delete it?", and believe me, I wish it were that easy, but this obsession was just another of the addictive ED behaviours I couldn't seem to curb. I was addicted to the attention, to the comments, to the criticisms, and why? Because it reinforced exactly what my eating disorder was saying to me.

Unfortunately, Instagram served a similar purpose. It was easy to find pictures related to anorexia, and there was such a huge ED community on there, especially within the girls I'd met in hospital. I didn't realise at first how strange this community was. We'd have accounts dedicated to our "recovery", and post pictures of our tiny (but we'd say "huge") meals with captions detailing our thoughts and feelings around our EDs.

Now, it's not uncommon for people to post pictures of meals on Instagram, but this was different. It was like we were trying to create a persona - an online version of ourselves with a very "pro-recovery" attitude. But it was all a façade.

I can't even begin to explain how many times I posted a picture of a meal I was planning to eat, but never ate it. We would post pictures of ourselves talking about how well we were doing, even if we weren't, and about how "fat" and "disgusting" we felt. Although we probably did feel fat and disgusting, we posted these pictures because we knew we'd get messages of support and people telling us that we weren't fat.

I'm not saying that we were bad people, or even that we were attention-seeking. If anything, it was the eating disorder that sought the attention, using our social media accounts as a medium for this. I'm also not saying that it was deliberate either - I genuinely believe that we had good intentions, and that we actually do want to get better, but I came to the conclusion that Instagram, Tumblr and whatnot were not the appropriate mediums on which to go about our recovery.

I felt that being in these online communities didn't help me with me recovery at all, but hindered it more than anything. It kept me in a bubble of EDs, being constantly exposed to pictures of food and other girls, and constantly comparing myself to these other girls. It took me a while to realise how unhealthy, and how unnatural this was.

This wasn't normal - normal people don't post pictures of every meal (showing how little they eat) with a paragraph about how much they hate themselves or conversely, about how well they seem to be doing when their picture suggests otherwise. While talking about recovery is a positive thing, I discovered through my experiences that my recovery is my business.

It's a personal thing, and I didn't want everyone to know everything I'm thinking and feeling. I also didn't want to have to put on this façade that everything was okay all the time and that I always felt positive. I usually felt like shit, and a lot of the time, I didn't feel like getting better.

So this is the climax of the story. The part of the story where the protagonist takes the leap, does the courageous and dangerous act to save the day, and in my case, it was to save myself. It may seem like such an easy, insignificant thing, but the thought of deleting my Tumblr and my Instagram was terrifying. I'd spent so long documenting my life over the past few years, expressing every awful thought and feeling I'd had, articulating in writing what I couldn't verbalise.

But I realised that it wasn't me who had spent all this time writing and posting these things - it was my eating disorder. Deleting these accounts was like having to let go of an old friend, and was like deleting a huge part of my life. It was scary and it was upsetting, but at the same time, it was incredibly liberating.

eating disorders
"This attention was like a drug to me - people were praising my progress and complimenting my 'will power'."

I felt like a part of me was free. I was no longer looking at pictures of ED-related things, and reading things I knew would trigger (I hate that word) me. I was no longer surrounded by eating disorders, and this enabled me to engage in the real world. I saw what normal people did, and I did what normal people did.

Although my story isn't over, and I still think about my body and my eating disorder quite frequently, it's not the centre of my universe anymore. I was surprised at how little time it took for me to stop missing my online life, and it was when I started engaging in reality and trying to lead a normal life that I discovered that life without an eating disorder isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it seems like it could be a wonderful thing.

I suppose the moral of this story is a simple one: the internet can be an amazing place. It can serve an incredible purpose and open up a world of opportunities. But at the same time, it can be an incredibly dangerous thing, especially for people who suffer from mental illnesses.

So I urge you, whether you're a sufferer of mental illness, or whether you know someone who suffers from mental illness, please be careful with your online habits. If you're trying to recover from something, I'd advise that you stay away from the internet and certain aspects of social media.

Live your life, and do so away from the internet - it's certainly worth it.

If this post brings up issues for you, you can contact The Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673.

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