WARNING: This post deals with the topic of eating disorders and may be triggering for some readers.
Lululemon pants with a generous wedge of air between the legs; strong stomachs flanked by visible ribs. Hair in high ponytails, with makeup-free pouts and just a bit too much collar bone visible underneath.
If you’ve spent much time on Instagram, Tumblr or Pinterest lately, you’ve probably come across #fitspo.
When it works, #fitspo (or #fitspiration) is a community of nutritionally aware, active people encouraging each other to lead their healthiest lives. But when #fitspo doesn’t work, it can be a very dark place.
The anorexia-promoting hashtag #thinspo was banned from Instagram in 2012, after similar moves from Pinterest and Tumblr. #Thinspo was a way for eating disorder sufferers to motivate and encourage each other’s pathologies. They would use it to share extreme dieting tips and images of emaciated woman as ‘inspiration’.
Now, Sheena Lyonnais, a former eating disorder sufferer is writing on XOJane that following and posting under the #fitspo hashtag had exactly the same negative consequences on her mental health as following thinspo blogs would have. She writes:
“To the susceptible, it’s a disorder in disguise of health, bad habits masquerading as good ones. It’s a massive trigger that can send you spiraling into a dark world of disarray.”
“Soon I was just like the rest: re-blogging pictures of skinny girls with their running shoes on and their bones sticking out, beside photos of avocado on toast, beside memes with mantras and rules, so many fucking rules.”
Focusing on ‘healthy’ eating and exercising habits is an incredibly tough line to walk for those who have tendencies towards disordered eating. Getting fit, just like losing weight, is something that is usually met with high social rewards in our society. Fit girls who go to the gym get lots of praise – so even when your behaviour turns from health-conscious to self-destructive, it can be hard for outsiders to tell the difference. Instead, they reinforce and encourage your now-harmful habits until it’s way too late.
Those who suffer from eating disorders have tendencies towards perfectionism and being rigid in their thinking, so even motivators that are seemingly innocuous to most people can become dangerous triggers.
The guise of healthiness is what sucked Lyonnais back into her old, disordered patterns.
“I started running more and more. I started pushing myself harder, running for five minutes without stopping, then 10, then 20, then 25. I started eating less, restricting my calories and feeling extreme guilt if I surpassed [a certain limited number each day, but that number continued to fall and fall]… Something I had fallen into as a means of support had turned me back into the frightened and confused girl I once was. All the progress and confidence I initially gained in doing things the healthy way was lost now.
I stopped liking my body. I stopped being able to see anything positive in my journey, because there was nothing positive about my journey anymore.”
Eating disorder counsellor Paula J Kotowicz is well aware of the dark side of seeking ‘inspiration’.
“For individuals who are susceptible to or have experienced an eating disorder (ED) in the past, these types of images can effectively become ‘triggers’ into ED behaviours – like restriction, binge/purge cycles, over exercising,” Kotowicz told Mamamia. “These images can not only trigger behaviours but provide motivation, commitment and a goal for the individual, keeping them hooked into the illness and behaviours.”
While focusing on treating your body with respect by feeding it well, and exercising can be incredibly positive for eating disorder sufferers, being strict about one’s health can take a former sufferer dangerously close to the edge. Kotowicz explains:
“Any kind of strict regime, whether it be nutritional or exercise-based, contains those same potential triggers that the eating disorder contained. ED behaviours and illnesses are very heavily mired in rules and commandments, so if a person has already experienced an ED, we know that they respond very literally and rigidly to rules. In short, it’s a slippery slope to a lapse or relapse.”
That being said, there are some strategies eating disorder sufferer can employ to engage with nutrition and fitness in a way that is truly ‘healthy’.
A major part of the recovery process is the development of a sense of self – self-worth, self-value. As this develops and becomes stronger, eating disorder sufferers begin to value themselves more and are less likely to want to harm or hurt themselves. This is especially important with regards to media imagery and its effects on an individual’s body image – self acceptance of one’s body as it is, is critical here.
These sort of things need to occur so that the individual can rationally assess and understand how for them, they cannot engage in any kind of strict regime, including restrictive, generic diets because of the risk of triggering behaviours.
Fortunately, Sheena has made changes similar to those suggested by Paula J Kotowicz. She chose to delete her Fitblr (Fitness Tumblr), and her calorie trackers, and start over, with a kinder attitude.
She says: “My life is slowly beginning to resemble some form of normalcy, though it remains a challenge at times… I’m learning to love myself again and challenge myself in new, healthy, positive ways.”
If this post brings up any issues for you, please contact The Butterfly Foundation on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673).
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