Elon University junior Jennifer Finkelstein struggled with eating disorders and body image throughout her high school years. When she came to Elon, all she wanted was a sense of hope for a more positive experience and future. However, transitioning to college life with a mental illness became difficult.
“I knew that other people were struggling with that too...but we never really talked about it. So a lot of the times I did turn to Instagram to recovery accounts and fitness accounts," she said.
When Finkelstein scrolled through these social media accounts on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, some of the posts she came across were harmful to her recovery.
“A lot of the Instagram aesthetic kind of just plays into our world and our idea of what you need to do in order to take care of your body and everyone has a different body and everyone has a different journey,” Finkelstein said.
She says the accounts that defined “unhealthy” and “healthy” habits were the most damaging.
“When you label foods unhealthy or cheat foods or bad foods…you are still kind of in that mindset that the foods I am putting into my body determine its worth,” Finkelstein said.
Senior Hannah Durbin, the owner and creator of “Healthy Happy Hannah,” a social media and blogging account focused on fitness and eating disorder recovery, was inspired to create “Healthy Happy Hannah” after her own life-threatening battle with anorexia.
While Durbin carefully considers each post she creates and how her followers will receive it, not all accounts on social media do the same. She said with apps right at your fingertips, not every scroll through a post feed is in the best interest of the user.
“The difference between showing off your body and being proud of your body is worlds apart. So unfortunately, a lot of people are putting photos on there to grab attention and not justifying why they are doing it,” Durbin said.
Bilal Ghandour, an assistant professor of psychology at Elon, said social media usage during eating disorder recovery can either be positive or harmful. It can be helpful for people who might be looking for hopeful messages, but it can also trigger obsessive behaviors that tend to lead to eating disorders, he said.
“They may recover from that [eating disorder], but then they move on to something else,” Ghandour said.
While Ghandour says the recovery process is different for every social media user, he says users should prioritize “knowing what their limits are when it comes to how much time spent online." Ultimately, he says that the responsibility comes down to the user to decide if social media is a positive or negative influence in his or her life.
In their own ways, Finkelstein and Durbin are working to make social media platforms a more positive space for users. This past March, Finkelstein revealed her struggles with body disorders with a photo of her smiling during her semester abroad in an Instagram post — the first time she addressed her disorders on social media. She wanted the photo to capture a time in her life when she was her happiest to show that progress doesn’t need to be numerical.
“I didn't include numbers because that doesn't matter," Finkelstein said. "I didn't include behaviors or anything that could affect someone, and I really tried to focus on my emotional journey and how far I have come."
Durbin makes promoting body positivity on social media a priority in her life by posting inspirational messages on a regular basis.
“My number one goal is to help people in any way that I can,” Durbin said.