Why I'm Boycotting 'Before and After' Eating Disorder Photos
I deleted my “then” vs. “now” eating disorder recovery photos from social media recently.
Well, because I am so much more than just a comparison photo.
If you do not know what these photos are, to spread awareness of eating disorders, people in recovery take a photo from when they were struggling the most with their eating disorder and put it next to a photo of them now. The “before” photo usually depicts themselves at a very low weight while the “after” photo shows a healthier weight.
The thing is though, all these photos show is physical change. One misconception around eating disorders stems from the stereotype that you need to look underweight or look “deathly ill” to be struggling. And while specific eating disorders can drastically affect one’s weight, one can struggle at any weight – underweight, overweight, any and every weight and size in between.
You do not need to “look the part” to struggle with an eating disorder. Your struggles are valid and real no matter your physical appearance or gravitational pull on this earth.
As someone in recovery and as someone who blogs about my recovery and has even posted these photos myself, I have grown to no longer agree with these photos. I do understand why we share them though. We post them to remind ourselves we never want to be that sick again. We post them for those who don’t see the mental anguish and torture those of us with eating disorders face internally.
The thing is, we have nothing to prove. Though I think our intentions are good, I believe we need to look at other perspectives and think about how we are affecting others. Posting these comparison photos is enabling the idea that you can see those who have eating disorders. It can also enable competition among those struggling with thoughts like, “Well, I’m not sick enough to get help because I don’t look like that” or “I don’t deserve help when others are struggling more than me,” etc.
These photos are incredibly dangerous. We are preaching that you can’t always see those who are struggling, yet we share these photos depicting that very idea.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.
While I believe those posting the photos have only good intentions and aim to raise awareness about eating disorders, by giving into society’s pressure and an outsider’s need to see progress in visual and external forms, we reinforce the idea that we can see who has an eating disorder.
I also would like to mention those in the recovery community who post these photos accompany them with incredibly moving captions. The captions I agree with. Captions may be concise, so they only show a very small window into that person’s life. However, oftentimes I can hear the struggle in their word choice. I feel their pain because I can relate to their words. And I feel this sense of relief when I read how far they have come in their own recovery. I feel proud of how far they have come. These emotions are evoked from the story, not from their photos.
To be completely honest, I do at times feel genuine shock if I see a “before” photo on social media – particularly if it is graphically showing how ill the person was. And that feeling of shock is another part of the problem.
Shock is a very quick and temporary feeling. Others could argue the emotion of shock could cause them to help the person and create change – usually by leaving the person a supportive comment or sending a message. But a moment of sympathy is something I strongly feel is causing and enabling even more stigma. It then becomes this game of validation.
Well, I posted this comparison photo of myself and now the likes and comments are pouring in. I feel validated. I feel heard. I feel understood.
That feeling also does not last forever. If we truly want to be validated, heard and understood and we are comfortable sharing our stories, we must create lasting impacts.
Not every single person out there who is struggling with an eating disorder at this very moment can share a photo or share a number that evokes the same type of shock.
And that is a huge issue.
Whether we intend to or not, we are telling the world those who look “ill” are the only ones who are ill. That is not fair to others who are struggling but do not fit the standard we have created. And it is also unfair to others who are struggling and feel uncomfortable sharing their own photos.
Being at war with our minds is something you just cannot see. We can explain our battles by using words and emotions and sharing our stories. However, the infamous “before and after embracing recovery” comparison photos are just feeding into the superficial needs of society and those who do not struggle with eating disorders.
And frankly, we deserve better. We deserve to be heard and validated and respected no matter what our lowest weights or sizes were/are. Our illnesses are real, no matter what. We do not have to prove anything to anyone. I also personally don’t think it’s worth it to potentially trigger others in recovery to harm themselves to fit the visual standards of “sick” and “struggling” we have created.
I want anyone out there in recovery to know this: someone else’s sickest weight or size is not something you have to compete with. Your illness is valid no matter if an eating disorder has taken a severe physical toll on your body or not.
Overall, though we are praised for sharing these photos, we are feeding into the misconceptions of eating disorders.
So let’s fight back.
I encourage you to responsibly share your recovery story this Eating Disorders Awareness Week (EDAW) if you feel comfortable doing so. I also encourage you to factor in other people – those in recovery and those whom we are trying to educate – when you post this year.
And I encourage you to use the photo pictured below as your “before” photo if you want to help a project regarding this topic I would love to see brought to life.
We are so much more than comparison photos.
We are strong, resilient warriors and we will go against the grain and continue to fight to be seen and heard – even if it means not receiving instant validation. Like recovery, change takes time. It is a journey but it is possible.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.
Photo via contributor.