It was the summer of 2004. I was an August baby, young for my grade, and about to turn twelve. I had just endured an entire year of seventh grade with the nickname “Tremble,” a clever play on words based on my last name to make fun of how “fat” I was that I made the floor “tremble” as I walked down the hallway.

Every bite I took in the lunchroom or even at the kitchen table seemed to be under constant scrutiny.

I came downstairs most mornings to hear my outfit “didn’t flatter” me.

My grandmother had just offered to pay me $5 for every pound she hoped I would lose that summer.

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Food was a source of shame and confusion at this age, mostly because the only influences around the subject were the kids at my lunch table or my family.

Lunchtime consisted of me staring down at my bag of carrots, pining over other kids’ potato chips.

Meals with my mom’s family were heavily reminiscent of their former lives in California, all fresh vegetables, foods that kept you feeling “light,” using applesauce instead of oil in baking recipes.

Sunday dinners with my dad’s family revolved around how much butter you could fit onto a Pillsbury Grands® Flaky Buttermilk Biscuit and how what you ate didn’t matter because “we’re all going to die at some point anyways.”

Needless to say, I was very confused.

Of course in 2004, there wasn’t much awareness about how other people lived. There was no Facebook. Food Network Magazine hadn’t even been started yet. Instagram wouldn’t be around for another six years.

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The only time I ever learned anything about food was a 10-week “weight management” class I was signed up for called “SHAPEDOWN.”

The program’s goal is to “create an active, full life so that food [and other] activities are less important.” It also says it will provide you with “strategies to stop kids from teasing you…about your body.” In the “for parents” section on the website, SHAPEDOWN says it will allow parents to let go of the “fear and frustration about [their] child’s weight.”

As a rational person, I’m sure you can identify so many things wrong with the content above, i.e. exercise being more important than food, doing things differently so other kids would stop teasing you, and appeasing your parents so they weren’t ashamed of you. The program still exists today.

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Despite those ten weeks of hell, I found myself constantly sneaking food from the table and escaping to a part of the house where no one could catch me, hating myself more with each bite of stolen goods because apparently eating the way I was eating was “wrong.”

It was only recently that I found out I wasn’t exactly alone.

When researching for this article I talked to a fellow Spoon member named Ashley who had done the exact same thing. She would sneak down to the kitchen at night and eat in the dark for fear of her mother finding out. After talking to Ashley and reading about others’ stories, I realized my actions were extremely common and they had a name: “binging.”

A lot of people don’t realize this, but binge-eating is a real, clinical eating disorder. As Ashley puts it, it is “essentially bulimia without the purge component.” Ashley has been through several years of therapy and is exponentially healthier, but years later still finds eating peacefully to be a challenge. An eating disorder attacks your beliefs about sustenance on a primary level, and it consumes you.

So now, as a huge Instagram lover, I constantly wonder what my relationship with food would have been like back then if that, and other social media platforms, had been around.

My entire childhood could have been different.

I would’ve had a larger frame of reference of how to live a healthier life. I would’ve found a community of people experiencing the same thing as me, so maybe I wouldn’t have felt so isolated. 

Today I look to Instagram for inspiration for everything, from recipe ideas and travel spots to cool restaurants in cities I plan on visiting, and, most importantly, tricks of the trade in living healthfully while still eating delicious food. I think Instagram is one of the most eye-opening forms of social media. It connects you with people across the world in a visual way and allows you to bond with people you’ve never known (and probably won’t ever meet). 

But in that same vein, some people think Instagram is a platform that perpetuates eating disorders, that it’s a place where people can find a community around obsessive, unhealthy eating habits. But I find it to be quite the contrary, and so does Ashley.

There are tons of pro-ED recovery users on Instagram, bringing people together in a positive way to create a supportive community of their very own.

When Ashley first joined Instagram she was “doing it not for pretty pictures, but to document [her] journey.” Ashley came to find a connection amongst this group of perfect strangers that gave her a sense of validation.

She said,

“Finding people who experienced what I experience in a real, documented, clinical way was a big deal for me. It gave me a name for what I was living, and ultimately made me feel less alone. Seeing healthy and delicious meals every day [on my feed] and all the people eating them was soothing for me.”

Social media gets a lot of crap for a lot of things, but you can’t deny that without it, we would have a narrow and uneducated view of a lot of things. My confused twelve-year-old self who didn’t understand food or exercise or how to live healthfully made for a lonely existence. Instagram is one factor in my life that educates me on all of those things while serving as a way to appreciate the way others live.

In the end of the day, that picture of someone’s meal teaches you more things than you’d think. It teaches you it’s okay to eat. It’s okay to enjoy eating. It shows that food photography really is an art form.

It can even teach you that quinoa is packed with protein or that in Brazil, the most common drunk food is shrimp stew.

As Ashley says and the food community of Instagram insinuates,

“Enjoy the food. Appreciate the food. But never punish yourself for giving your body what it wanted. Biologically, we’re pretty smart. So just listen to what the body says to you, really listen, and you’ll start to figure it out.”