WFDD's Radio 101 has chosen to use only the first initial of the student in the following story due to the sensitive subject matter and to protect the students' privacy.
As an experiment, grab your phone right now, open Instagram and look at the “Explore” page and the “Suggested posts.” If in the past 30 days you've interacted in any way with an account or post that promotes unattainable body standards, your “Explore” page will probably be full of similar images. More and more pictures of seemingly perfect people with perfect bodies doing perfect things. Now, do a second experiment and check how much time you (or a teen of your choice) spend on Instagram looking at those pictures.
The Facebook internal documents published by The Wall Street Journal earlier this year revealed that the company is aware that Instagram is an app engineered towards “social comparison.” The same report showed that Instagram spotlights users' bodies and lifestyles. And L, a 16-year-old girl struggling with bulimia, is aware of this.
“I'm not necessarily seeing all these girls with different body types,” said L. “But people get into all these mindsets, and they see all these people on social media, who are either — they have a flatter stomach, or they have more of a chest or a butt than they do, or they're more muscular, or just even have more meat on their bones … but it's not you. You might never get to the body that you want.”
According to the National Organization for Women, half of American girls are not happy with their bodies, and this number climbs up to almost 80 percent by the time the girls reach 17. Some of them will resort to dieting and food restriction to try and achieve what they believe is the body that will make them feel happy. Others, like L, will resort to more extreme behaviors.
“It took me so long to be able to articulate it,” said L. “And I finally was like … like I had to do a motion with my fingers, because I couldn't like I didn't know how to say it. And I was in tears, like, choked up trying to say it.”
She had been purging food. She was diagnosed with bulimia at the end of 2020. She's been getting treatment ever since.
“I don't necessarily like how I look. But like, I don't know how to get to that point,” said L. “And I hope I can one day because I feel like accepting yourself for who you are, is the biggest thing for you. And I can't wait until I get to that.”
The road to recovery is a long one. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, relapses and backslides are more the norm than the exception. Stressors like going off to college, or starting a new job, or moving away from home can prompt previous unhealthy behaviors to re-emerge. An individual with an eating disorder has to relearn normal eating habits and coping skills and at the same time work on the underlying issues that set off this disorder in the first place. For L, it means learning to not care about what other people might be thinking about.
“We have a cafe here. One time I got like two small like … a little packet of Sour Patch Kids. And I tried to hide one in my bag. I tried to get there [the register] really quickly,” said L. “Because my rationalization was ‘what if people look at what I'm holding, and they look at what I'm eating, and then they think about how my body looks and then make a judgment based off that?'”