How TikTok's recovery community is rejecting triggering pro-ana content
While eating disorder content continues to thrive on the app, some creators are providing well-needed relief by documenting their journeys to recovery.
In January 2021, 19-year-old college student Ro Mitchell made a TikTok account to chronicle her recovery from anorexia. Providing an intimate look into the ups and downs of her journey, Ro edits together footage of what she cooks and eats throughout the day while encouraging her followers to nourish themselves. And it resonated: she has since amassed 250.1k followers, while a video of her eating birthday cake has almost eight million views.
Before that video, Ro hadn’t eaten cake in over four years. Now, she’s one of the countless young people challenging themselves on TikTok as part of their eating disorder recovery. The ‘fear food’ hashtag in particular has 99.9m views, and is dominated by young women eating food they are afraid of, because their eating disorder tells them it is ‘bad’ in some way. For her contribution to the trend, Ro filmed herself making and eating avocado on toast and cooking dinner in oil, something she hasn’t done since she became ill. To comfortably use oil again, which she feared because it is high calorie, is a big recovery milestone. “When I watch that video now, I remember how much I was shaking. I was terrified,” Ro says. “In a recent video, I fried vegetarian chicken in oil, and it still scared me but I didn't shake. I had a lot of comments about sounding more confident and I feel more confident,” she asserts. After this, Ro shared a touching TikTok to announce that she’d overcome her first fear food; yoghurt: “When I feel like I’m never going to get better, I look at these videos and realise I’ve already made so much progress.”
TikTok has helped to motivate Ro, who began posting because, she says, so many ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos showed low-calorie diets. “When I was sitting in my house eating dinner alone I thought I was so greedy. And so I thought, if I share this online, somebody might realise they aren’t the only one in recovery.” ‘What I Eat in Day’ videos have blown up on TikTok; the hashtag has 5.3 billion views. A collective obsession with what other people eat isn’t unique to the platform; diet culture has long encouraged it. But TikTok’s easily digestible, short format has made it more ubiquitous than ever before. Peppered among ‘calorie restrictive’ videos of baked oats and smoothies, though, ‘What I Eat, in Eating Disorder Recovery’ videos are gaining traction, with 64.7 thousand views on the hashtag. 27-year-old Adelaide Saywell spotted one of these on her FYP. “It helped me in my recovery when I saw that,” she says. “So I thought I’d try it too.”
Food is central to these accounts, but they also try to raise awareness of eating disorders amongst their young followers. ‘You can’t live a full life on an empty stomach,’ Ro says in one video. ‘Fat is not your enemy. You deserve to eat.’ Her encouragement seems to work; Ro says her followers tell her that they ate something because of her video. “It makes me smile so much because I know how horrendous having an eating disorder in your brain is,” she says. Manchester-born Adelaide — who witnessed the prevalence of pro-ana content on Tumblr as a teen and is thankful to have TikTok’s recovery community now — has had a similar experience: “So many people message me saying I saved their life. It makes me cry every time.”
An often toxic obsession with body image thrives on TikTok, making it a minefield for people in recovery. Adelaide says that because of this, she doesn’t scroll through her FYP. “No matter how many times I click ‘not interested’, I am met with an abundance of videos like ‘how to eat this many calories and not die’,” she says. “I even had to unfollow some other supposed recovery accounts because they were sharing weight and body checks, calorie counts and selfies from before and after their illness.” Adelaide’s frustration with finding triggering content on pages pegging themselves as recovery-focused personifies the difficulty of monitoring eating disorder content on TikTok.
Dr Ysabel Gerrard, whose research specialises in content moderation on social media, says that the problem is, you can't control what everyone is going to be triggered by. “But the answer is always transparency,” she explains. “On TikTok, when you hold a video down and click, ‘I'm not interested’. What are you saying you're not interested in? It could be anything. What if there was a way to say, ‘I don't ever want to see videos that mention calories’?”
After a Guardian investigation proved that pro-ana content — including an account that provided “tips” for unhealthy weight loss — is rife on the platform, the company banned six accounts that violated community guidelines, which prohibits content that promotes disordered eating. TikTok also began working with eating disorder charities, like BEAT in the UK, to direct people who search eating disorder related hashtags to their services. The crackdown was long overdue, but banning hashtags hasn’t removed triggering content from the platform. Instead, people misspell words to get around content filters, which pushes the videos underground.
To get to the crux of the issue, Ysabel says, TikTok needs to invest in research to figure out what is happening under hashtags such as ‘What I Eat in a Day’. “There will be subtle differences between the pro-ana, recovery and fitness ones. Once they know what these are, they can develop better content moderation systems.”
Under current moderation, Ro and Adelaide’s videos are being flagged for ‘violating guidelines’ and they’ve had their accounts removed multiple times. Adelaide says that being banned felt like having her “safe space stripped away for no reason.” The accounts were reinstated once TikTok was notified, with the Trust and Safety Team confirming over email that this was a case of mis-moderation based on their videos referring to eating disorders. The email continued: “We see members of our community taking part in these conversations using hashtags that are more neutral and clearly linked to recovery, rather than terms which can cause upset or distress to others.” Ro was banned again days later, for ‘violating multiple community guidelines.’ She wasn’t told which guidelines, or which videos specifically violated them. After emailing TikTok and asking her followers to report that a mistake had been made, she was allowed back.
Ysabel, who has seen Ro’s videos, was shocked at the decision. “Do they know how dangerous it is to cut someone’s mental health support off?” she says. “Tik Tok needs to seriously consider the threshold at which it bans eating disorder accounts, because that could kill someone.” Ysabel stresses that she doesn’t see this as an active effort to censor recovery accounts. “It seems like the rules are being applied very inconsistently. And like, even they don't have a handle on what the rules are.”
When asked why these accounts were banned, a TikTok spokesperson replied: “Our Community Guidelines make clear that we do not allow content depicting, promoting, normalising, or glorifying eating disorders. We do however support members of our community safely sharing their personal experiences to raise awareness.” And clearly, those accounts are helping others, either in raising awareness or providing a platform which shows others that recovery is possible.
Before becoming ill herself, Ana thought that anorexia was just a disease for ‘teenage girls wanting to be skinny’. She began using TikTok to show others that eating disorders are mental illnesses, not weight disorders. “In the past two months, I’ve noticed a big increase in people creating recovery accounts on TikTok, saying ‘I do want to get better. I want to get my life back’. It has been a breath of fresh air,” she says. “Recovery has made my life so much fuller. I’m genuinely happy now. I hope my followers can see that.”