If December is the month we give to others, the beginning of the new year…
“Maybe if I was a better dancer, maybe if I had more confidence, maybe if I was skinnier, maybe if I was prettier. Everything will get better when I’m thin. Skinniness will bring me happiness and peace of mind.”
For Stephanie Bailey, her first memory of disordered eating is incredibly hard to pin-point but as she flicked through her diary from when she was 15, the truth of how she was treating her body hit her like a bus. While she openly spoke about her struggle with bulimia on her YouTube channel in 2018, looking back and understanding that her eating disorder had started as early as the age of 14 was confronting.
“I was just writing about my life and the amount of things that I wrote and I normalised in the language was quite confronting,” she says. “I didn’t think I had an eating disorder back then.”
“I was starving myself and I was so proud of myself.”
In her new short documentary Dear Social Media: Influencer Culture & The Rise Of Eating Disorders Stephanie is exploring the correlation between the rise of social media, influencer culture and the increasing number of people suffering with eating disorders.
Written and produced for her last university assignment, the 28-year old has always wanted to make a video like this to normalise conversations surrounding disordered eating as she believes people often struggle to receive the help they need.
According to the National Eating Disorder Collaboration, approximately one million Australian’s are living with an eating disorder in any given year but there are many more who don’t meet the criteria for a diagnosis.
As a teenager, Stephanie wouldn’t eat for 20 hours a day. When she did eat she felt like ‘she had failed’, writing in her diary that she wished she could purge because it was easier and the truth behind why she didn’t: she was afraid she would never stop.
“No one ever took me seriously because I wasn’t skinny,” she says.
“I wasn’t matching one of the diseases specifically…it wasn’t until I matched bulimia when I was older that I was able to get help.”
Dear social media…
Boasting over 140 thousand scribers on YouTube, Stephanie’s career began during the early days of the platform. During the first five years of her channel, she honestly believes YouTube saved her from her eating disorder as she threw all of her energy into content creation.
“It was very fun and I look back at the photos and they’re amazing,” she says. “But I was so miserable behind the scenes and I was just really unwell. It’s funny because I edited so many photos of myself, it’s like I’ve edited them in my mind as well.”
View this post on Instagram
While she didn’t grow up with social media, Stephanie believes that influential media culture plays a significant role in both diagnosed and undiagnosed eating disorders.
“We’ve always had this influential media culture,” she says. “It used to be magazines, it used to be models. I remember watching Top Model and some of the things they said in that show were so problematic.”
Watching the ‘trendiness’ of eating disorders in magazines and television shows, Stephanie would write down the measurements of her favourite models and starve herself to look like them.
Now, with the evolution of social media and influencer culture, she believes that the ‘everyday’ influencer, the person living down the street, is helping to contribute to the ideal of an unattainable life.
“I just think it’s way more problematic now because it’s everyday people. It’s your peers, it’s your friends and it’s just an added level of comparison that is really dangerous,” she says.
“I wanted to focus on that because it didn’t cause my eating disorder but I know the effect it had on me…the documentary wasn’t going that direction but when I did the polls on my Instagram, over 1000 people responded and it came up with 51% of people thought they’d had an eating disorder.”
As an influencer herself, the topic is incredibly close to home.
View this post on Instagram
Stephanie says the experience of talking about the impact of influencer culture was incredibly ‘weird’ but as she delved deeper into her past she began to recognise the role she may have played.
“Being in the beauty space was just so intense because you had to be perfect and look the best but also I realised that I played a part in this,”she says.
“I’ve edited myself and I have played a huge part in potentially making people feel how I’ve felt over the years and so I think I wanted to rectify that a little…the scariest part of this whole video wasn’t coming out about my disorder but it was admitting to what I’ve done.”
Dear 15 year old me…
Even as she outlines her own experiences in the documentary, Stephanie doesn’t have a clear-cut answer on how to change the narrative of social media and influential media culture. However, as body-positive movements continue to saturate social media platforms, she believes that showing a spectrum of reality on the normally curated apps is a step in the right direction.
Stephanie admits she was terrified to talk about how she used Facetune on her photos but once the documentary headed in that direction, she knew it would be hypocritical not to discuss it.
“I felt like I started in this really encouraging and accepting place…but then it changed as soon as money became involved,” she says. “Then Instagram came along and Facetune came along, it became competitive…it just became a very toxic environment.”
After dropping out of University due to her eating disorder, finally being able to finish her degree with Dear Social Media: Influencer Culture & The Rise Of Eating Disorders feels cathartic to Stephanie. It’s been two years since she began her recovery from bulimia and as she does her part to change the narrative around disordered eating, it’s a healing experience.
But what would Stephanie say to her 15 year old self?
“Your experience is valid and real. I see you, I see what you’re feeling and experiencing and it’s going to be okay,” she says.
“I believe everything happens for a reason and maybe I experienced all this so I can share it and help other people. Even if it just helps two people, that’s still two people’s lives changed.”