Take one look at Cheyenne Lindsay’s Instagram feed and you get what she’s about: mirror-flexing after “upper body day,” moving through a yoga flow in the Guatemalan jungle, beaming at the finish line of her first marathon, sharing her recipe for high-protein, blueberry-chocolate-chip pancakes. The Edmonton-based nursing student has all the makings of your typical gym-dwelling, nutrient-promoting fitness influencer, a.k.a. fitfluencer — except she’s not. Lindsay’s part of a growing number of young women in eating disorder recovery sharing their fitness and wellness journeys online.
Her own struggle began soon after she started university in 2016. After walking away from an elite-level swimming career and then gaining the “freshman 15,” Lindsay spiralled down a disordered path while trying recoup her sense of self. “I’d exercise a little more, eat a little less, then I’d lose some weight and get hooked on it,” she says. “Eventually, I couldn’t focus on anything but food and weight loss and working out.” A few months later, an anorexia diagnosis resulted in Lindsay being hospitalized at a treatment centre for five months. There, she gained back 30 lbs., learned how to reincorporate fitness into her life and started her Instagram account @balancingchey as a place to document her recovery. Now, just two years after she entered treatment, Lindsay’s amassed nearly 10,000 followers who keep up with her upbeat and honest entries.
Poke around the abundance of eating disorder (ED) recovery hashtags on Instagram (#gainingweightiscool, #edrecovery, #beatana) and you’ll uncover a community of popular accounts just like Lindsay’s. Their grids look how you might expect — posing in the latest gym gear, showing off a newly defined muscle group — but it’s the impassioned captions that set them apart from your average fitfluencer. “Recovery is one hell of an uphill battle but the easy hike never has the best view,” reads one of Lindsay’s recent posts. “Finding a motivation to keep fighting has been hard” comes from another Instagrammer who is 10 years into recovery. In response, the supportive comments are bountiful: “You got this babe!” “We all want to see you happy and free.”
These online diaries, complete with built-in validation, are a space to air out negative feelings during bad body image days and navigate working out with a healthy approach. In a way, it helps keep these young women accountable to their recovery. The beauty of the platform is that they can easily connect with others facing similar challenges of an isolating disease. “For me, it’s been really helpful putting it out there and not carrying it on my shoulders alone,” says Lindsay.
But for every feel-good social media story, there’s a darker one hiding out in its shadowy depths, particularly in the ED space. Some of these accounts — their owners teetering on the edge of relapse, or in the midst of one — paint a narrow image of recovery: emaciated-looking figures pumped up with muscles in all the right places, restrictive diet plans painted with the “clean eating” brush. The overall “strong, not skinny” message is still present, but the lines can easily blur between wellness motivation and disordered behaviour perpetuation. Since Instagram is a visual medium, it fosters constant comparison between users, which can be particularly detrimental to the vulnerable ED community. As Lindsay puts it, “We don’t all want recovery.”
This new kind of “fitspiration” is a by-product of the evolution of “thinspo,” or thin inspiration, in the media. Once the body positivity movement of the past decade gained momentum, “skinny” forums and pro-ana groups were forced further underground; Instagram even banned the #thinspo hashtag in 2012. But in this void, new ways to normalize disordered behaviours have arisen, says Lori Peters, a Winnipeg-based counsellor at the Provincial Eating Disorder Prevention and Recovery Program at Women’s Health Clinic. “These ‘fitspiration’ accounts become a problem when they chronicle food choices and fitness regimens that on the surface promote ‘health,’ but in reality fuel a rigid, preoccupied and unhealthy relationship to food and the body,” she says.
This rebrand of disordered behaviours has bred new opportunities for women — ED survivors or otherwise — to compare themselves. “‘Thin’ culture continues to exist, but now as a woman, you have to be thin and fit,” says researcher Sara Santarossa, a PhD candidate in Kinesiology at the University of Windsor whose work analyzes Instagram content and its effect on body image. This phenomenon has come for the expectant mother set, spawning ever-popular #pumpthebump content; fitness inspiration for a “healthy” pregnancy and, of course, the postpartum bounceback. The “clean eating” craze has also had its effects: A 2017 study out of University College London found a link between following health food accounts on Instagram with an increase in symptoms of orthorexia nervosa, a clinical obsession with “healthful” eating.
All of this is why social media has increasingly become a subject of discussion during the ED treatment and recovery process, says Peters. But these kinds of conversations are worthwhile for everyone, given that almost 70 per cent of women struggle with body image issues. Santarossa suggests focusing on conscious social media consumption and creating boundaries where necessary. “If you’re scrolling through content and it makes you feel bad, or question why you didn’t go to the gym or eat a salad, it might be time for a social media audit,” she says. It’s simple: Unfollow, mute or block content that doesn’t positively serve your mental health.
As for Lindsay, who is navigating ED recovery and a six-day-a-week workout regimen, she’s like many of us: remembering that one meal won’t quash her progress, making sure she doesn’t overdo it in the gym, striving to stay on the right side of the body image battle. “It’s still a fight most days,” she says, “but it’s getting easier to make the right choice.”
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