10:42 p.m. By now, the gum in my mouth tasted less like Tropical Breeze and more like a piece of freezerburnt, boiled chicken.
I unwrapped another piece, ignoring the grumbles from my stomach. I minimized my Instagram feed and clicked open a new Internet tab to MyFitnessPal.
Gum. 5 calories.
If I limited myself to two more pieces before heading to bed, I’d come in 400 calories below my goal.
As an English major, I thought words were my drug of choice. But—a semester into my freshman year of college—and I found myself addicted to numbers: minutes in the gym, fat grams in veggie burgers, calories in gum and vitamins. Most importantly, the weight on the scale.
Throughout high school, I hadn’t cared what I ate or how often I exercised. Sure, I went for slow jogs with my dad. I flirted with diets, only to wind up eating three slices of pizza at dinnertime. I wasn’t overweight, but I was hardly the fittest girl in class. Oreos tasted too good, treadmills were too boring. I was also a rare specimen in that I was a teenager without social media. No Facebook, no Pinterest, and I thought a Tweet was the noise a bird made.
College meant living away from family and friends, so my Facebook account started as a way to stay in touch. Then a writing class required me to join Twitter. By Christmas, I was clicking “Pin It” on every recipe I read, reposting workout pictures to Instagram, and mindlessly scrolling through gifs on Tumblr. The Internet could offer me everything reading Jane Austen alone in my dorm room couldn’t: information, inspiration, and connections. As a shy freshman, making so-called “friends” through blog posts or 140 character Tweets was a lot less nerve-wracking than saying “hi” to the kid sitting next to me in class.
To calm my anxiety and get my endorphins pumping, I started spending 20 minutes on the gym’s elliptical. It was more exercise than I did in high school, but I still ate the ice cream offered daily in the dining hall or went out for late-night milkshakes. I lost a few pounds—which was noticeable on my 5-foot tall frame—and returned home for winter break to countless compliments.
I don’t know when the addiction spiraled out of control. Maybe it was when I downloaded MyFitnessPal to every device I owned, just to see how much I should eat. Maybe it was when Tumblr suggested accounts of bodybuilders who boasted their twice-a-day workouts. Maybe it was when fitsporation images slipped into my Pinterest, advertising “skinny” recipes and juice cleanses. Soon jogging for 20 minutes wasn’t enough, and I made it 30, 40, and then an hour. I’d grab a plate to pile on the dining hall’s pasta, but then think of the six-pack abs plastered across my Instagram feed. I didn’t really want to go over 1,200 calories, did I? Salad and hardboiled egg whites would keep me thin, successful, pure. At least, according to those seemingly flawless bikini competitors on Tumblr.
Coming home for summer vacation, my family was shocked with how my shorts hung off my hipbones. I didn’t understand their worry. I was just happy when my calorie counter was under my goal. When I could go to the gym to do my routine. When I finally attained a gap between my thighs.
I barely slept, my hands and feet were constantly cold, and I hardly felt hungry anymore. I’d scroll through Pinterest, saving recipes for brownies and muffins that I’d bake for my family, but never dare to taste myself. One doctor finally asked if I had an eating disorder, but I denied it. I was just trying my best to sculpt my body like the Greek gods that graced my social media feeds.
But his comment stuck in my mind, leading to my research in eating disorders. I took online tests, checking “yes” to a surprising amount of questions. Stories of people like me, who had starved until their hearts gave out from poor nutrition and still never felt thin, left tears stinging my eyes. I broke one night, knowing I was destroying my body but clueless as to how to stop the voices. The ones that told me I wasn’t good enough, that pushed me harder to become less.
Then, as my finger hovered above a “Pin It” button on a weekly meal plan that totaled a whopping 1,000 calories per day, I realized that clicking that button would mean feeding my disorder. It would mean another week of depriving my body, collapsing into my bed from exhaustion after simply walking up a flight of stairs, and praying to the scale that I would weigh one less pound. My Internet purge started with Pinterest. That picture of a man with “The only workout you regret is the one you don’t take” emblazoned across his torso? Gone. Three-day military diet plan? Bye-bye. The hardest struggle was deleting my calorie counting app. At first, I felt anxious after every meal and could still recite the calories in every apple or piece of chicken I ate, but it wasn’t long before I learned to enjoy food’s taste and texture instead of its macronutrients again.
All of my social media accounts went through the same process. I unfollowed the bodybuilders who did three-a-day workouts and survived on chicken and broccoli. I unfavorited weight-loss progress pictures. I deleted bookmarks to fitsporation sites. Instead, links to the National Eating Disorder Association website and recovery blogs filled the void.
Sophomore year meant selecting a topic for a capstone project. Although I hadn’t directly told anyone outside of my family about my eating disorder, electing to do a project about eating disorder awareness would raise suspicions from professors and friends. Still, I knew that doing so would not only assist others still struggling, but it would also help me heal.
I didn’t have high expectations when I created a blog to write about eating disorders and social media’s influence. With all the websites out there, I doubted anyone would read what I had to say. Then I got my first comment from a reader who thanked me for boldly discussing this topic. When several people actually submitted body positive images to my website during eating disorder awareness month in February, I almost quite literally jumped for joy. Good thing my desk in religion class prevented that.
I don’t blame social media for my eating disorder. What I do blame is how easy it makes spreading toxic ideas. One hashtag here, one video there, and you can make countless people believe unfounded concepts about how they should be or should act. We can easily discount a friend’s negative comment or reject a colleague’s crazy habit when we experience it in person but, when the same idea is covered in Instagram filters or masked behind an online identity, it seems ten times more glamorous. We don’t see how the same bodybuilder who showcases his bulging biceps bails out on a family vacation because going would hinder his workout regimen. We don’t witness the same mom posting her low calorie dessert recipes tossing her own food in the trash because she’s afraid of deviating from her diet.
However, social media creates positive movements too. The personal blogs of others helped me recognize hunger signals again, realize the dangers of metabolic damage, and learn I wasn’t alone during my struggles. My capstone project allowed me to virtually connect with some of these bloggers, who continually prove that complete recovery is possible.
Every potentially harmful post cannot be eradicated from social media. What might be triggering for one person could be completely fine for another. What we can do is learn which Tweets, which blog posts, which Tumblr accounts aren’t helping us embrace our own uniqueness. As simple as clicking “follow” is, clicking “unfollow” is just as easy.
We can also take it a step further. We can use social media to show our vulnerabilities. We can share our insecurities and less-than-stellar days, not just our balanced meals and selfies taken in the best lighting. If we show weaknesses, we shatter the illusion of perfection that the Internet creates.
I sometimes still come across a picture or article that triggers that old eating disorder voice, but now I recognize those thoughts as irrational and ridiculous. I’m learning to tune them out. I’m learning I have the power to decide how social media influences me.
I’m remembering that I’m an individual, one that cannot be controlled by an online calorie calculator or someone else’s selfie.