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the rise of recovery-influencers

The rise of the eating disorder recovery influencer

Going up against long-established pro-ana sites, there’s a growing online community of young women sharing their journey to better health

A recent report from the BBC paints a bleak picture of an eating disorder epidemic developing on Instagram. The news organisation details that posts and comments promoting eating disorders are “spiralling out of control”, as “vulnerable” people, many of them children, use the platform to find “anorexia buddies” to support them in fasting and weight loss. This problem is not new; back in 2012, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram banned “thinspiration” and pro-eating disorder tags entirely in the hopes of curbing this type of behaviour. While that move did decrease the availability of pro-eating disorder content, it could not satiate users that still craved the kind of supportive peer communities that social platforms like Instagram provide.

Seven years later, Instagram is still a place where people with eating disorders are finding like-minded peers. But there is also a growing movement of influencers who are promoting recovery on the platform and providing safe spaces for healing. This recovery content, bright and positive, is a salve for the harmful pro-eating disorder posts that pray on the vulnerable, and is growing more popular by the day.

“I was shocked at how big the recovery community was,” says Rebecca Leung, one of the most prominent ‘recovery influencers’, as we’ll call them. Leung was born and raised in Hong Kong, and spent several years in treatment in the United States. Before that, she says she used to search online for the kind of content she now makes on Instagram and YouTube for a combined 149K followers. “I would search ‘How do I get better? I feel so stuck,’” she says.

For those looking for it, recovery content is readily available on Instagram. A search for #eatingdisorderrecovery clocks in at over 1.9 million posts and #edwarrior, short for “eating disorder warrior”, has accumulated 1.4 million posts. On YouTube, searches for “eating disorder recovery” bring up hundreds of uploads, from “what I eat in a day” recaps and personal recovery journey vlogs, to the genre of video that Leung helped pioneer – the “food rules” challenge.

“It’s a very helpful tool for reminding myself of what I need to be doing to help myself” – Rebecca Leung

“I don’t know where it came from and I definitely didn’t create it,” Leung says of the original “food rules” challenge, “but because that video of mine was very popular, I think other people were inspired to take it on.” The video she is referring to is “Challenging 5 Anorexia Food Rules | Eating Disorder Recovery”, which has gained more than 2.1 million views since she posted it in July of last year. Over the course of the video, Leung vows to break five food rules she lived by while sick, including not adding milk to her coffee and or putting cheese on her burger. And then she does both of those things, right there on screen.

The video encouraged many others to post their own versions of the challenge, and Buzzfeed jumped in on the trend late last year. Challenges are great for a YouTube audience, which increasingly favours the format, and for productive eating disorder recovery, which focuses on mental health and habits, not on calorie counting or before-and-after comparisons. Leung says that it’s the food challenges specifically have “propelled” her recovery. I would definitely say that I am further along than I probably would be without my channel. It only takes a day or two of not challenging yourself for your eating disorder to slip right back in, so it’s great that I have a schedule to make these videos. It’s a very helpful tool for reminding myself of what I need to be doing to help myself.”

Her channel is a helpful tool for her audience, too. Under a recent video from Leung, one viewer wrote: “I just want you to know how much I appreciate you and the content you put out... not only are you helping yourself in this recovery process, but you’re also healing the rest of us.” According to Shira Rosenbluth, a psychotherapist, eating disorder coach, and body-positive style blogger, Leung “is an inspiration and a role model” because she challenges herself and ties her success to her mental health, not her weight. Plus, “she’s fun to watch”. This is true. Leung is bubbly and relatable (her channel banner features a photo of her smushing a piece of cake into her mouth) and she is often accompanied in her videos by her boyfriend Tyler, who acts as both co-star and cheerleader.

Rosenbluth notes that “eating disorders breed shame and isolation and secrecy” and that while “group therapy is obviously different than watching someone online, the whole concept of group therapy is knowing that you’re not doing this alone and that your experience is a little bit more universalised.” This universalised experience is what Leung, and other recovery influencers, bring to their audience.

“There is this idea that there is only one way to look when you have an eating disorder and that becomes so invalidating for all those other people struggling that are never seen or represented” – Shira Rosenbluth

Rosenbluth knows firsthand the weight that eating disorder shame can hold. In March, she shared her own eating disorder with her 74K Instagram followers for the first time. “I had a really close friend say, ‘If you had cancer, would you still be feeling the same amount of shame? You didn’t ask for an eating disorder, you don’t want this.’”

Now that her truth is out in the open, Rosenbluth is increasingly focused on changing the narrative around eating disorders online to ensure that the discussion is inclusive of all body types, not just those seen most often in the media. In general, she says, “there is this idea that there is only one way to look when you have an eating disorder,” – thin, white – “and that becomes so invalidating for all those other people struggling that are never seen or represented.” 

She also worries about the nature of social media itself, which could make it difficult for recovery influencers to move past what she calls the “eating disorder identity”. “Sometimes our entire identity becomes being sick or in recovery, as opposed to really living our life.” Leung is conscious of this, too.

When asked what her vision for her channel is, she says she hopes to one day document life after an eating disorder. But, for now, Leung is happy with where she is – invested in her recovery, and the recovery of others. “I depleted myself of so much for so long… I have to make sure that this is something I keep up for a long time.”