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Meet the UoB student helping people around the world stop calorie counting

Jen Cohen began #DitchTheDigits to combat unhealthy habits related to numbers


A topless man with washboard abs writes how he’s only “recently stopped counting calories,” whilst a St Andrews student admits posting “before and after” pictures of her eating disorder recovery was an easy way to getting more likes on Instagram. These, and countless other examples, are all brought together under the banner #ditchthedigits.

Inspired by the hashtag, people are deleting calorie counting apps, unfollowing influencers promoting meal replacements, and stopping comparing themselves to others. There are now hundreds of posts. "One girl posted that in challenging herself to do the campaign she didn’t count calories for the first time in her recovery, and was able to go out for a pizza with friends", says Jen Cohen, the brains behind the hashtag.

Yet, you might be surprised to know that the campaign was started in Selly Oak. Jen’s a third year English Literature student at the University of Birmingham, with 11.9k Instagram followers and is UoB's own BEAT Social Media and Publicity Officer.

Jen decided to begin the campaign after noticing how bound up her eating disorder was with her OCD traits and obsessive counting: "My eating disorder thrived off this constant desire to set rules and achieve numerical perfection, like reaching my goal weight, or only eating a certain number of calories per day.

"I found that my recovery was catalysed by throwing out my scales and ditching calorie counting apps. Removing my obsession with numbers has helped me to achieve freedom and positivity in almost every aspect of my life. It’s A LOT easier said than done, but the idea of the campaign is to challenge yourself to #ditchthedigits for one day this month and see how it makes you feel."

And it's not just about eating disorders. People have been sharing stories about comparing themselves to others using everything from number of sexual partners, to university grades, to likes on Instagram.

Jen says "It might be turning your phone off so that you don’t look at how many messages or notifications you have, ignoring OCD rituals for a day (or trying to!), throwing out scales. It might just be be conscious of how you might judge other people for their numbers (like how many people they’ve been with, how high their grades are, how much they eat or how often they gym). I’ve seen posts with the hashtag on Instagram, Facebook, blogs, and even YouTube videos!"

Posts have come from America to Australia to Selly, garnering hundreds of likes and shares. It's also helped to normalise many people's concerns around numbers. "A certain weight on the scale could ruin our entire day, that's how much power A NUMBER has been given", reads one post. "The focus on digits is very apparent in men's fitness" reads another.

Jen started her Instagram at the end of first year after being hospitalised for her eating disorder: "I just wanted to be honest about where I’d been and what I’d been doing – I felt like people were asking questions as to where I’d been all summer and I just wanted to come out and be clear with the fact that I’d been in treatment for an eating disorder.

"After that I just got really into campaigning because I was so frustrated with a lot of content I was seeing on my feed – influencers promoting diet and detox products, talking about reducing calorie counts and weight gain, and then the much darker side of Instragram actively romanticising eating disorders and self harm.

"I was equally frustrated with the stigma that I faced with people calling me withdrawn and lazy at university, when really I was just so fatigued and fed up that I didn’t have the motivation to get up. I wanted to show people that mental illness isn’t attention seeking or lazy – it’s not an easy way out of responsibilities or deadlines. It is the most debilitating and frustrating feeling. You feel like you’re stuck underwater whilst everyone else gets on with their lives above you."

I asked Jen about looking after your mental health at university, where these intrusive thoughts about numbers are at their strongest. "Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I know that sometimes it feels like a personal failure to speak to welfare, ask for an extension, go to therapy or go on medication. But, if anything it’s really a personal victory to be self aware enough that you can ask for help when you need it. Nothing is ever ‘not severe enough’ to warrant help – and no one with anxiety has ever been perceived as ‘taking advantage’ of the system.

"Also if you need to take time out from your studies, don’t rule it out because it’s inconvenient. In my experience the university is normally very helpful, and this is often the best way to aid recovery … once you start working it becomes a lot more difficult to take time out for your mental health and still be supported."

Jen is Social Media and Publicity Officer for BEAT UoB, the Guild's own branch of the national eating disorder support charity. She's helped on multiple campaigns, particularly with this week's Sock It to Eating Disorders campaign. Members of BEAT will be handing out socks and information at the Bournbrook crossing Monday-Wednesday, encouraging us all to say sock it to eating disorders.

Jen notes that you don't have to have a diagnosable mental health issue to get involved, "It’s really a social media based campaign, so if you'd like to get involved, write something about your experiences with numbers and how they influence your life and wellbeing, and how it feels to give up their influence for a day."

If you need support for mental health, you can contact Birmingham Nightline.