Social media and the birth of Orthorexia

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Social media and the birth of Orthorexia

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The media at large has for many years been accused, rightly or wrongfully, of portraying false body image.

Stick-thin models, garments hanging wraith-like from malnourished limbs like the shedding husk of a paperbark tree are brandished brazenly by the most desirable of fashion houses. Girls (and an increasing number of boys) want to be them, lesser brands want to emulate them and a tragically unhealthy body image is portrayed as the norm, or at least, the image of dietary success.

It has been well documented and has even been defended and disparaged in courts of law across the planet, but for as long as we have this inherent idolatry of the rich, famous and fashionable, we will have a damagingly skewed perspective of what it is to be, in the eyes and judgement of society, desirable, acceptable… perfect.

What has not been so readily expounded is social media’s inherent part in this false marketing of the human form and even the encouragement for the younger generations to pursue drastic measures to gain what the brands and even their peers deem the ideal shape.

There are the obvious means of the promotion of body image; the fashion pages and celebrity accounts pawed over by youth for current trends and false direction. But added to this, there are the so-called ‘health coaches’ and ‘wellness experts’, pseudo-professionals who expound the benefits of every fad, superfood and quack theory under the sun for a few more likes or worse, sponsorship dollars.

Extreme trends, such as ‘dry fasting’ – taking prolonged periods of several days without consuming anything at all, including water – go viral, spreading their corrupting messages far and wide without a shred of proof, science or qualification. It isn’t only the images themselves that have intrusively penetrated their way into our lives, it is now the fast and ready dissemination of false information.

It is sarcastically retorted that ‘it must be true – it’s on Facebook’, and to the vast majority of self-aware and free-thinking adults, the irony is blatant. But even we get caught out by cleverly Photoshopped images and apparently true stories that, in reality, are anything but. But the impressionable youth aren’t so discerning. If enough people share a specific message, it becomes true to them even if, deep down, they do know better.

Orthorexia has sprung from this acute awareness of body image, yet another psychological land mine to dodge in a field of mental tripwires. Defined as “a proposed distinct eating disorder characterised by extreme or excessive preoccupation with eating food believed to be healthy” by Wikipedia, it is better understood as an unhealthy and extreme dedication to dietary trends, whatever their practice. Fasting, for example, has been scientifically proven to be highly beneficial. But when magnified into the dangerous trend of dry-fasting and obsessed about by young teens desperate to be accepted, popular and beautiful, the danger is evident.

Veganism too has been shown to have huge health benefits, as well as doing profound environmental good, but without proper education the naïve and innocent enter into a life of nutritional deprivation and malnourishment, all seemingly promoted by uneducated health bloggers.

There is also a level of one-upmanship which, again, is compounded by over-exaggerations and falsities so easily declared online. “I dry-fasted all weekend,” says one high school friend or online connection. “Well, I’m going to dry-fast all week,” says another, and so it continues. That isn’t to single out dry-fasting in particular and yes, perhaps scientific evidence does prove it to be beneficial under the correct circumstances and guidance. The problem is, those circumstances and guidelines simply don’t, and don’t have to, exist in the online world.

Sugar-free diets have helped countless people lose weight, address diabetes, treat candida and eczema among other sugar-related ailments. But to take a single aspect of their teachings is to eliminate an entire vital food group. Paleo, too, can be taken to extremes, leading to elevated cholesterol, weight gain and deficiency in essential vitamins.

We simply don’t realise how powerful our online voices can be and, with the right imagery, phraseology and disingenuous title, we can convince anyone of anything. Even when what we preach has saved our lives, cured cancer, helped us go from morbidly obese to ultra marathon runner or any number of success stories, whatever worked for us will not necessarily work for others. Without exclusive consultations there is simply no way we can confidently and categorically state what will work for another individual.

The Internet is an incredible source of information almost miraculous in its benefits, but it cannot see us, touch us, discover what makes us tick and exactly what it is we might be suffering from or needing to heal. So when viewers read the latest proclamation of good health on Facebook or see alluring images of the new food craze on Instagram and take these articles verbatim as the path to wellness, they are only viewing a myopic perspective with no ability to assess the personal validity of these lessons.

Orthorexia has been bred of this flood of misinformation. We have been inundated with the health benefits of superfoods, paleo diets and exercises to such a degree that those searching desperately for a healthier lifestyle devote themselves exclusively to an unhealthy, even dangerous degree to what is being repeatedly posted.

We are losing the power of free thought, casting our lives into the hands of our authorities. When it is the government, we are only to quick at the rebuttal, fighting for our own opinions with passion and ire. But when it is the saccharine voice of social media, we fail to see an identical situation. We believe it is our choice but, in all its innocence and positivity, social media is prescribing a life that is not ours.
The Buddha once said, to paraphrase, “I have found my truth and my path to enlightenment. I will tell you how I have walked this path, but it is up to you to question every word I say, to find your own path, your own truth.” We need to regain this mindset of
investigation, to read the stories, to take them on board, to search for the benefits to health and wellbeing we need so desperately in this modern era, but we must question every word we read. Because we were born different, raised individually, we have our own needs and like and problems, so we must all discover our own paths.

We must find our own truth.

Author: Thomas Leitch

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