This week’s All Fired Up podcast was about the increasing number of Instagram ‘influencers’ in the health and wellness space who claim to be in recovery from an eating disorder, but at the same time make a lucrative living from selling intense eating and exercise regimes.
American Instagrammer “The Balanced Blonde” was the subject of our discussion, but there’s a lot of Australian examples, such as Jessica Sepel or Emily Skye. All of these social media influencers talk about a history of restrictive and disordered eating, and constantly assert that they are ‘cured’ from body insecurities because of their dietary or fitness regime changes.
But here’s the thing: eating disorders are not cured by making changes in food or exercise choices: in fact, there’s a real risk that the disorder can simply go underground when people do this.
If an influencer is still obsessed with their diets or exercise routines, even if they’ve regained weight, there’s still a problem. And if the influencer then goes to the extreme of building an entire business around publicising their diet and exercise regimes, this is A DOWNRIGHT WORRY!
Recovery from an eating disorder looks different for everyone, but the fundamental change is in your mind, not your body. In fact, letting go of the importance of your body’s appearance is arguably the most important factor in obtaining lasting recovery. Letting go of restrictive food rules is another extremely central one. Starting a social media account to meticulously record your eating patterns, exercise regime and appearance is generally not a great idea for people who are trying to reduce the centrality of these issues during eating disorder recovery.
Orthorexia happens when people become obsessed with pursuing health. The pursuit of health can be just as damaging as the pursuit of thinness (which is how eating disorders used to present before dieting became so unfashionable). In my opinion, these Instagrammers seem very far from recovered, rather, the eating disorder has simply morphed from one obsession (thinness) to another (health/strength/’glowing skin’ etc etc).
It’s the obsession that’s the problem, not the size of the body.
What’s particularly worrying is just how socially acceptable, approved, even desired, orthorexic type lifestyles are in diet culture. People like this have enormous followings: Emily Skye has a $32 million dollar fortune and made the ‘young rich list’ in 2017.
And this is why I think that perhaps the pursuit of health is potentially even more dangerous than the more traditional ‘pursuit of thinness’. Because although thinness is valued in diet culture, and diets are sold all over the place, actually trying to become anorexic is never openly encouraged the way orthorexia is being encouraged. “Pro-ana” websites exist, of course, but they are generally frowned upon and followed by only the fringes of society. With the advent of orthorexic Instagrammers, we now have the equivalent of pro-ana websites collecting millions of followers and an almost cult-like admiration.
Imagine a pro-ana website being relentlessly publicised in glowing terms all over mainstream media?? Imagine our news outlets giving uncritical PRAISE to these sites? Imagine the owners of these sites being lauded on our rich lists, or consulted as if they were health experts?
I’m not saying that everyone on the planet is at imminent risk of developing an eating disorder from following these people. Of course, there will be people who genuinely enjoy stuff like this with no discernible ill effects. But for a substantial number of us, exposure to the normalisation of orthorexic living will increase the risk of developing a disorder. And with over 1 million Australians already suffering from eating disorders, I don’t want to see more people falling down this rabbit hole!
Another reason this trend of orthorexic Instagrammers is so worrying is that by hiding disordered eating under the banner of HEALTH, challenging it becomes almost impossible. Very often people who are in the early stages of suffering from an eating disorder deny that they have any problems at all, and this lack of insight is exponentially increased when the thing the person is pursuing (health) is a socially acceptable practice. How on earth can we accuse such health-conscious people of being psychologically unhealthy?! ESPECIALLY if they have such a convincing backstory of recovery from an eating disorder? The health smokescreen becomes an impenetrable fortress.
Confronting loved ones about eating disorders is never easy, given the very typical lack of insight. Sadly, many eating disorders are not noticed unless people’s weights dramatically plummet. In some ways, being at a very low weight can make it easier for people to intervene, to present the person suffering with ‘evidence’ that something is wrong if there’s a medical instability for example. But if the eating disorder doesn’t include a very low weight, if it exists in a larger body, perhaps a very ‘fit’ looking body, it can become seriously impossible to challenge.
This is why it’s so important to look beyond the body’s appearance, and towards the psychological relationship with food, exercise, and body. The disturbance is there, inside someone’s mind. We can’t just assume everything is ok because the person isn’t dramatically underweight. We can’t assume everything’s ok because the person has muscle mass.
On a cultural level, the normalisation of orthorexic living will have an impact, we’re already seeing it play out in how enormously popular (and profitable) selling ‘health’ is. In terms of the psychological impact of this global obsession, I’m concerned. Obsession isn’t healthy!