Young people struggling with eating disorders find support on TikTok

Kerry Justich
·6 min read
TikTok creators are offering meal support for people in need. (Photo: Getty Images)
TikTok creators are offering meal support for people in need. (Photo: Getty Images)

A recent trend on TikTok is providing young people suffering with or recovering from an eating disorder with meal support by featuring creators eating food and offering users a safe space to virtually join them.

“I thought that it would be nice for you guys to have a video of me just sitting there eating so that if you ever are having a hard time eating you can come back to this video, sit there with me and enjoy your meal with me,” Clara Guillem says in a voiceover of a video of her eating a sandwich. “So, yeah. I love you guys. Use this whenever you want. I love you.” The sound has been used in 3,357 videos on the platform.

The 24-year-old who is currently living in Nashville, Tenn., tells Yahoo Life that she developed anorexia at the age of 14, sharing that social media platforms that perpetuated toxic content about body image encouraged her eating disorder. Now, as a full-time content creator focused on body confidence, eating disorder recovery and general mental health, she’s looking to change the way that young people interact with these platforms as well as with the people on them.

“My anorexia continued until I was about 20 years old,” Guillem says. “I remember the exact moment I decided to turn my account into a safe space for those with eating disorders. I had made a video asking people to stop posting toxic ‘what I eat in a days’ [videos] showing off their low-calorie meals on a kid’s app. Then, I got a comment from a 13-year-old girl saying she was struggling. I responded to the comment and all of a sudden I received hundreds of comments from kids that age saying they were unhappy with their bodies and engaging in harmful eating disorder habits. I knew then, that as an adult who had been through it all, and who they seemed to trust, it was my place to share my story and inspire others to get help.”

Guillem began to post videos where she shared her own experience with anorexia and her journey to recovery. She also would show herself eating food items that she previously deemed “fear foods” — what National Eating Disorders Association’s (NEDA) Communications Manager Chelsea Kronengold explains to Yahoo Life as different foods that might “trigger” someone with an eating disorder.

“That food can be associated with trauma for somebody, so that might be a fear food,” Kronengold says. “Generally speaking, fear foods are usually higher in calories, foods that the media perpetuates as ‘bad’ foods, even though at NEDA we don’t believe that there’s good or bad foods.”

Guillem is spreading that same message with content created specifically to share evidence of herself enjoying a variety of foods without guilt. During a TikTok live one day, she even realized the need to provide followers with more opportunities to feel encouraged to eat a meal and supported while doing so.

“I was on [TikTok] live once after getting food and just happened to be eating. My followers were super excited about it and said it made them feel safe and that they were eating with me. Since then, I’ve loved going on live to share meals with my followers. However, I realized that my followers, and others, could really use a video that they can come back to whenever they need to and eat with.” she explains. “I think the reason why it helps so many people is that they have the comfort of watching someone else eat, which makes the food seem less intimidating, but they don't have the anxiety of someone else watching them eat.”

The video posted on Sept. 10 with the caption “#edrecovery” has 1.1 million views as of Tuesday afternoon. Even more inspiring than the views she’s gotten on her own video, however, is the positive trend that Guillem has seen take off as a handful of other creators use the same audio to reach their own followers in need.

One of those creators is Brittani Lancaster, who has her own platform built on body positivity and food acceptance. The 22-year-old, who is in recovery from two eating disorders, does daily “what I eat in a day” videos to combat the usually toxic ones with examples of intuitive eating. She tells Yahoo Life that the meal support trend is one she’s most proud to participate in.

“I personally feel this is one of the most positive, beneficial and uplifting trends to ever be created on TikTok. Building a healthy relationship with food affects many people in so many different ways,” Lancaster says. “This trend encouraged people to nourish their bodies, in whatever way is best for them, and that is something I will always be proud to be a part of.”

Kronengold additionally explains that with the isolation that the coronavirus pandemic has many experiencing, the need for additional support for those with eating disorders is heightened.

“We know that for people struggling with eating disorders, this has been an extra challenge for them during COVID. So it’s incredible to see how innovative all of these ways of support are,” she says. “Meal support, which is essentially what this is, is huge. It’s a huge piece of eating disorder recovery, it’s a huge piece of treatment. So again, with people really struggling, this is kind of a free way to get some meal support and some encouragement when you’re struggling.”

While many of these videos haven’t existed on the platform for long, the impact has already been seen as people post videos in response that show them eating their “fear” foods for the very first time.

One teen even shared a video in response to another meal support video showing how it actually encouraged her to eat on a day that she said was “hard.”

While Guillem echoes the importance of having accessible mental health content on an app geared toward young, receptive users, Kronengold shares that NEDA has a number of virtual resources available, as well as a page of content geared toward the struggles associated with the current pandemic. She also points to an Instagram account @covid19eatingsupport that provides free meal support three times a day.

TikTok didn’t immediately reply to Yahoo Life’s request for comment. However, Guillem says that the app has provided a number of unique opportunities for discussing topics like eating disorders.

“People aren’t really followed by all of their friends and family on TikTok and their videos are mostly shown to strangers,” she explains. “I think to a lot of people, being vulnerable to strangers is easier than being vulnerable to loved ones.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, NEDA’s toll-free, confidential Helpline is here to help by phone (800-931-2237) and click-to-chat message. Crisis support is also available via text message by texting ‘NEDA’ to 741741.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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