The Google search term “weight loss” usually peaks each year in January, with New Year’s resolutions and post-NYE hangovers fresh on people’s minds.
In 2020, however, that search peaked again, even higher, in May, as most of the United States reached the second month of staying home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
And this year, the American Psychological Association published a study that reported 61 percent of U.S. adults said they experienced “undesired weight changes since the start of the pandemic.”
For those with eating disorders and disordered eating patterns (which can affect any person at any size or shape), the pandemic may have exacerbated symptoms and feelings of guilt, shame and lack of control, experts say. The National Eating Disorder Association has reported that calls and messages to its helpline were up by as high as 80 percent at various points during the pandemic compared to non-pandemic years.
But some who have been deeply affected by body image anxiety have been fighting back on their own — and trying to help others with similar disorders. They are increasingly taking to social media to destigmatize recovery, whether from an eating disorder or from being stuck in a cycle of diet culture.
Women have been re-envisioning the well-known “before and after” photos and videos that often permeate fitness Instagram feeds. In their split screens, they instead celebrate changes to their bodies, physically and mentally, as they recover from eating disorders and body image issues.
By posting their own journeys — and all that they have learned through the process — they say they’re fighting against the fallacy that size equates to health and that recovery is a lonely, individual place.
Here are three of their stories. All of these women, when asked what they would tell their younger selves, responded with a version of “You are already enough.”
At the tail end of December 2020, Kelsey Ellis posted a TikTok to her Instagram account with a “how it started” vs. “how it’s going” prompt. On the screen, the video shows her in a sports bra and shorts, the shorts hanging off her frame, at the beginning of 2020. The bullet points read: “Fit and lean, depressed & anxious, chronic dieting and no model contract.”
The next part shows Ellis smiling in a bikini, a year later. “How it’s going — December 2020, 25lbs heavier,” the text reads. This time, the bullet points read: “Diet & Binge Free, Model Agency, Brand Contracts, Launched an App, Building a Future.” The caption says, “TW: Disordered Eating Behaviours. 2020 was hard as hell but this is the glow up I didn’t even see coming.”
Ellis’s video is part of a growing trend on a platform that more often serves as a highlight reel of thin bodies and manipulated photos that can inadvertently trigger disordered thoughts and eating patterns.
For years, Ellis said, her mentality hinged on the phrase, “No pain, no gain.” With an iron-tough conviction for working out paired with counting calories consumed and burned, she remembers a version of herself as the “poster-card for conventional fitness.”
One night, Ellis made dinner for her husband and herself, portioning out the leftovers perfectly in two food containers: a larger portion for him, and a smaller portion for her. But her husband mistakenly packed her portion for lunch when he left for the day. Upon discovery, Ellis said, she broke down: “I had already figured out the calories and everything.”
“This needs to stop,” Ellis thought.
She credited this event as the catalyst that began her journey of questioning why she made the choices she was making: Was this what a healthy, fulfilling life was supposed to look like?
Now, Ellis, 32, a certified personal trainer in Vancouver, British Columbia, uses her Instagram account to champion body positivity at any size and help women break from diet culture. Important to her story, Ellis said, is recognizing the role that racism and Eurocentric ideals have played into why diet culture reigns — and why American society prizes specific body types.
On sharing her journey in a public space, Ellis said, she also wanted to recognize the roots of the body positive movement, acknowledging that it began “to elevate the voices of the bodies that have been marginalized in the first place and bodies that have not been accepted worldwide.”
Daniela Fernandez, 23, has always loved being in front of a camera. She has considered becoming an actress. These days, posting photos of herself on Instagram means sharing her recovery from an eating disorder and amenorrhea, a condition where premenopausal bodies stop producing periods, often from overexercising and a lack of nutrition.
But for a long time, she said, she felt like she wasn’t enough. After moving to the United States with her family from Colombia five years ago, she found herself living what felt like an endless loop of the same day and the same schedule on repeat.
After being hospitalized twice for being underweight, Fernandez, who lives in Atlanta and works as a content creator, said she realized the doctors were focused on treating her physical health rather than her mental health. Without help, she said, she worried she would resume the schedule and patterns that landed her in the hospital in the first place.
In 2017, she sought treatment and spent five months living in an inpatient treatment center in New York where she said she gained a wealth of tools to combat “ways of destructive thinking,” she said.
But once she was back home in Atlanta, where she lives with her family, she realized recovery is much harder in the real world, she said. She had seen other women share their stories of recovery on Instagram but often felt like it was missing the whole picture, missing the side of recovery that isn’t all smiles and newly discovered confidence and ready-for-posting moments. She decided to use her account to fill that space, she said.
Now, her account features side-by-side photos, showing the changes in her physique, the weight she’s gained and the calorie goals she aims for now. One caption reads: “Dear body, I am sorry … I have been fighting with you for such a long time … I have been neglecting for you to change without me needing to take control based on society’s standards.”
She said she approaches the platform as a sort of personal diary, a place where she can share the good and bad days that come with healing one’s relationship with food. She said she includes the calories she eats to show her personal growth, but she urges those who do overly focus on calories to seek professional help.
One of the most impactful things she has gained through recovery, she said, is learning to be more present in her life. “I just want to live,” she said, “My life doesn’t revolve around the food that I eat and the exercise that I do. There’s a bunch more important things to do.”
In college, Chloe Hodgkinson, 25, began every morning with 10 burpees. She was studying fashion media and marketing, and she worked as a personal trainer and had a passion for fitness.
After a split with her then-boyfriend, she decided to go off birth control pills. But she stopped having her period. At the time, she thought to herself, “Hang on a second here, I’m being healthy. I’m going to the gym loads, I’m eating loads of vegetables — I’m barely eating anything, actually, because that’s what diet culture tells us to do, ‘Eat less, move more.’ Yet suddenly, I’m not healthy?”
After learning that she had amenorrhea, Hodgkinson said, she found herself angered by what felt like a huge gap in information about what is actually healthy for women: “I ended up getting so frustrated and thinking, ‘I can’t have people go through what I was going through.’”
In the side-by-side photo of her in two different bikinis, she writes about how it was difficult for others to see her eating disorder at the time because, physically, she still appeared strong. But the things that can’t be captured in a photo — anxiety, stress, fear — held a much tighter grip on her at the time, she wrote.
Hodgkinson, who works as a content producer in the Notting Hill area of London, is quick to note that she is not a medical professional and that anyone who has health-based questions should consult their doctor. Instead, she said, she uses her platform to give the support she felt she once needed. “I always ask myself, what did I need when I was 18?”
If you or someone you know may be struggling with an eating disorder, amenorrhea or compulsive exercise patterns, you aren’t alone. If you need help, you can contact the National Eating Disorder Association’s hotline, go to Eating Disorder Hope’s list of resources or consult a trusted medical professional.